Monday, June 18, 2007

Bush's messenger, then and now

Let us briefly return to Sept. 26, 2004; on that date, President Bush was trying to convince voters to give him a second term. The election was just six weeks away. His number-one priority was to persuade people that he was making measurable progress in Iraq. Accordingly, a guest column appeared that day in The Washington Post, with the upbeat author playing the role of Bush’s Pollyana. Key excerpts:

I see tangible progress. Iraqi security elements are being rebuilt from the ground up. The institutions that oversee them are being reestablished from the top down. And Iraqi leaders are stepping forward, leading their country and their security forces courageously…There are reasons for optimism…Training is on track and increasing in capacity. Infrastructure is being repaired…Progress has also been made in police training…Considerable progress is also being made in the reconstruction and refurbishing of infrastructure for Iraq’s security forces…Iraq’s security forces are developing steadily and they are in the fight. Momentum has gathered in recent months. With strong Iraqi leaders out front and with continued coalition – and now NATO – support, this trend will continue.

Pretty encouraging, right? Any swing voter who read that piece might well have concluded that it would be nuts to dump Bush and elect John Kerry, what with the Iraqis so poised to take responsibility for their own security. And since nobody could possibly question the author’s bona fides, it had to be true: the Iraqis were getting ready to stand up, thereby allowing our troops to stand down – just like the Decider had long promised us.

Well, as we now know, those reassurances turned out to be worthless; after all, there would be no need for a U. S. troop escalation today if Iraqi’s security forces had really stepped forward to secure their own country. And one would think that anyone who played Pollyana in 2004 would be automatically dismissed in 2007 as just another credibility-challenged Bush messenger.

But apparently not. The author of that ’04 column was an Army lieutenant general named David Petraeus – the same guy (now a full general) who is leading Bush’s Surge, and who has been entrusted with giving Americans a straight-talk assessment this September.

You see where I’m going with this. Given Petraeus’ rhetorical track record – and his apparent willingness, back in 2004, to inject himself into the middle of a domestic partisan campaign – why should we have confidence that in September he’ll say anything that would deviate from the White House line?

That ’04 column came to mind last week, while I was reading new remarks by Petraeus about some of the swell things that have been happening in the wake of the Surge. As proof of “normalcy,” he told USA Today about all the “professional soccer leagues with real grass field stadiums, several amusement parks – big ones, (and) markets that are very vibrant.” That’s nice about the soccer leagues. Maybe ESPN would be interested; on the other hand, ESPN might be more interested in the latest Pentagon report, which says that the endemic sectarian violence has not decreased since the Surge began in February; and that the last six months have been the deadliest for U.S. troops since the war began. Not to mention the fact that, despite the Surge and despite the supposed "tangible progress" among Iraq security forces, only 40 percent of Baghdad is currently considered secure - according to the U.S. military.

But the upbeat talking points are tough to give up. Yesterday, Petraeus made his first Sunday talk show appearance (on Fox News, naturally), and reaffirmed his praise for the Iraqi soccer leagues on real grass fields. Clearly, his September message will be: we’re making some tangible progress (soccer), but there are still tough challenges ahead, so therefore we need more time to make the Surge work, Americans should be patient, let’s look ahead to 2008 and beyond.

The key phase of the Fox interview began with this question by Chris Wallace: “There are reports that you…would like the Surge to continue until at least early 2008, that if it’s going to work, it needs to continue into early next year, is that true?”

Petraeus (bobbing and weaving like a seasoned pol): “We’ve got a number of different options that we have looked at, Chris, and it really is premature at this point in time to try to prejudge that. Again, I would suspect that late in the summer, early September, that we will provide some recommendations on the way ahead up our chain of command as well.”

Translation: “Yes.”

Wallace, to his credit, followed up: “But you surely don’t think the job would be done by the Surge by September, do you, sir?”

Petraeus (finally): “I do not, no. I think that we have a lot of heavy lifting to do.”

There it is: The troop hike continues, with Surge proponents in perpetual pursuit of “progress.” In Petraeus’ words, “counterinsurgency operations have gone at least nine or 10 years,” and perhaps this one should go longer, with “a long-term security arrangement over time,” like we have in South Korea (another idea being floated by Bush).

What’s noteworthy, however, is that Republicans on Capitol Hill aren’t buying any of this. While Petraeus was delivering the Bush line on Fox, Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell was dissenting on CBS. McConnell, referring to his Republican colleagues, said: “I think everybody anticipates that there’s going to be a new strategy in the fall. I don’t think we’ll have the same level of troops, in all likelihood, that we have now. The Iraqis will have to step up, not only on the political side, but on the military side, to a greater extent. We’re not there forever.”

So there’s the disconnect: The GOP rank and file, anxious about the ’08 elections, wants a decisive September Surge report, and a drawdown of U.S. troops – while Bush and Petraeus want a Surge extension, with no drawdown. The key issue is whether McConnell and his colleagues, having already decided that Bush has no credibility on Iraq, are therefore prepared to question Petraeus’ credibility as well.

If they’re looking for ammo, they might want to start with his ’04 Pollyana pronouncements. Nothing that Petraeus said back then is as credible as what Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is saying now, in his attempt to explain why his Surge-supported government has failed to meet political benchmarks: “There are two mentalities in this region, conspiracy and mistrust.”