Thursday, June 14, 2007

Tony lowballs Iraq, Rudy punts

Back on May 29, I mentioned that the Bush team, despite having originally indicated that September would be a key juncture for measuring the effectiveness of its so-called Surge, was suddenly trying to take a slide on September by dampening in advance any expectations of meaningful progress. Late last month, President Bush’s friends at Fox News and in the think tanks were dutifully spreading the word, in the hopes that perhaps restive congressional Republicans would sit tight and give Bush even more time to indulge his signature disaster.

Actually, from Bush’s perspective, weaseling out of the September deadline makes perfect sense, because the idea that the political and security conditions in Iraq would suddenly improve, just because the U.S. had commenced a troop escalation, seemed laughable from the start. And, sure enough, the Surge thus far hasn’t made any appreciable difference.

Iraq’s political leaders, divided by sectarian hostilities, have taken virtually no steps toward reconciliation, much less enacted the reform laws that the Bush team is demanding as a gauge of progress. And today we have a new Pentagon report, which says that the average daily casualties in Iraq have actually increased since the Surge strategy was first implemented on Feb. 10.

So it’s no surprise that Bush, now tagged with a 29 percent job approval rating, is backing off the statement he made in a Reuters interview on May 22. At the time, he characterized September “as an important moment, because (General) David Petraeus says that’s when he’ll have a pretty good assessment as to what the effect of the Surge has been.” But today, it’s a different story.

My dictionary defines the word important as “of much or great significance or consequence.” The Bush dictionary apparently has a looser definition.

Bush spokesman Tony Snow did his bit for the team yesterday, playing a game of lowball with the White House press corps (while insisting, naturally, that he wasn’t low-balling anything). When he was asked to characterize the impending September assessment, he called it “the first opportunity to have a little bit of metric…At that juncture, you’re going to be able to have a little more granularity, as they say.”

I’m having a little trouble squaring “a little bit of metric” and “a little more granularity” with the dictionary’s “of much or great significance and consequence.” It seems to me that something of great consequence translates, at the very least, into a large amount of granularity.

A reporter asked Snow whether his characterization of September was different from Bush’s May 22 characterization of September. He replied, “No, I will let the president do the characterizations…I think we’re parsing a little bit here.”

A reporter reminded Snow that Bush has said in other interviews that we would know in September whether the Surge was working. Snow was then asked, in reference to September, “is it the right time to judge whether the new way forward is working?”

Snow replied, “Again, let’s see. We’ll have to take a look. I just - ”

Reporter: “But that sounds like backpedaling.”

Snow: “No, it’s not backpedaling. It’s just - it seems to me to be such a vast, metaphysical question.”

And so on. I sympathize with Snow. It’s the thankless job of the White House flak to spin a disastrous war by talking about granularities and metaphysics, and hoping that nobody remembers what the administration has previously said about the Surge (in Senate testimony on Jan. 12, Defense secretary Robert Gates said that we would be able to measure the effectiveness of the Surge "fairly quickly," within "a couple of months").

So perhaps we should seek out substantive answers elsewhere, starting with the Republican frontrunner for the ’08 presidential nomination. What would Rudy Giuliani do in Iraq? How would he differ from the current lame duck? Let’s check out Giuliani’s policy agenda, which he released on Tuesday. He calls it his “12 commitments.” I’ve got it right here. Let’s see….

Wait…Iraq must be on this list somewhere….Still looking…

Nope, not a single word here about Iraq.

He does declare that “I will keep America on offense in the terrorists’ war on us,” but that’s hardly a profile in courage, since I doubt that any ’08 candidate will be promising to put America on defense. And one would think that, if he wants to “keep America on offense,” he might want to at least address what he would do about Iraq, which, at a price tag of $2 billion a week, is severely complicating America’s attempts to stay on offense worldwide.

But not a word about Iraq. And when asked Tuesday why he had stayed mum about the electorate’s number-one concern, he said this: “Iraq may get better, Iraq may get worse. We may be successful in Iraq, we may not be. I don’t know the answer to that. That’s in the hands of other people.”

This, from the guy who wrote a book called Leadership. My dictionary defines leadership as the act of providing “guidance” and “direction.” But, apparently, Giuliani doesn’t want to take the lead and offer guidance and direction; he’d rather punt, by simply saying that the war is “in the hands of other people.” If a Democratic candidate had made such a statement, he and his fellow Republicans would be citing it as proof that the other party doesn’t have the guts and moxie to lead America in time of war.

His dilemma is obvious, however. If he had spelled out a commitment that essentially endorsed Bush’s strategy, he would have endeared himself to the Bush diehards who are expected to vote heavily in the GOP primaries – but he would have signaled his foolhardiness to the swing-voting independents who have long concluded that the war is Bush’s folly. On the other hand, if he had spelled out a commitment to radically change course in Iraq, he might endear himself to swing voters – but hurt himself with GOP primary voters.

This is the mess that Bush has created for his fellow Republicans, and it explains why people like Snow and Giuliani have to play games with the dictionary.


If you're not sick of hearing about Hillary Clinton, you might want to download yesterday's "Radio Times" show on Philadelphia's NPR station. I discussed the Hillary-as-polarizer issue for an hour with author and foreign relations fellow Peter Beinart. It's available here, at 6/13, Hour One. Listen for the caller who insists that Hillary reminds many men of their first wives.