With regards to the Bush adminstration's latest PR push for open-ended war in Iraq, it is significant that designated cheerleader Ryan Crocker has barely been able to muster even a smidgen of rah-rah enthusiasm.
The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, much to his credit, doesn't seem to share the president's penchant for strolling through wreckage with rose-colored glasses. Indeed, Crocker's behavior this week during his Washington visit can probably be viewed as a reasonably accurate barometer of just how badly the war is going - and how Bush is basically at the mercy of ground-level events that are out of his control.
After two days on Capitol Hill, and a press conference this morning, Crocker (always appearing with General David Petraeus) is leaving behind a string of downbeat remarks that are worth recounting:
"I am frustrated every day I spend in Iraq....There is an enormous amount of dysfunctionality in Iraq, that is beyond question. The government, in many respects in dysfunctional...I frankly do not expect us to see rapid progress through these benchmarks...It's hard to do nation-building or reconciliation in the face of widesprread sectarian violence, which has been the situation over the last 18 months...It's no exaggeration to say that Iraq is, and will remain for some time to come, a traumatized sociey...The failures are there on the Iraqi side, it's frustrating to me...My level of confidence is under control..."
It was also striking that Crocker strayed so far from the latest Bush spin about how the war in Iraq is really about our need to defeat al Qaeda. Crocker barely mentioned al Qaeda all week; apparently, he thinks there are bigger problems in Iraq than the presence of fighters who identify themselves with al Qaeda. (Virtually every study of the conflict has concluded that al Qaeda fighters constitute a small minority.) As Crocker said this morning, the prime headache in Iraq is the ongoing civil strife between home-grown Shiites and Sunnis - in his words, "an ethno-sectarian competition for power and resources."
This morning, Crocker also sought to cheerlead to the extent that he felt comfortable. It was almost painful to watch his labors: "The trajectory is moving upwards, but the slope is not very great, because of what we're seeing at ground level...the slope is up, even if the gradient isn't very deep...a long hard grind...I think that grind is making progress."
But since he did manage at a few junctures to utter the word "progress," that should be enough for Bush, who is now slated to speak about Iraq in prime time tomorrow night. He'll second Petraeus' recommendation for a modest troop drawdown by next spring or summer (the troop reduction that was inevitable anyway), he'll praise Petraeus and Crocker for divining signs of encouragement (in Petraeus' words today, "a degree of hope"), and he'll call for more time and patience. And he probably won't offer any new thinking about how Iraq's political leaders can be coaxed to reconcile, post-surge, after refusing to do so during the surge. Given the extent to which most Americans have already tuned Bush out, it's safe to predict that millions will simply ignore him and surf to some other show.
Crocker hasn't been in Iraq for very long, but he already has the downbeat bearing of Robert McNamara in the last days of his Vietnam stewardship at the Pentagon. As a subordinate, he's in no position to recommend that Bush go on TV and announce a fundamental shift in strategy. For instance, he's in no position to write something like this:
"The public is waiting for leaders from both political parties to stand up to the president and say enough is enough. They would like this situation resolved - and soon - and there is no other solution acceptable to them other than bringing the troops home...It is my opinion that the best leaders are those who trust the will of the public, even if that means changing direction or admitting a mistake. This is true leadership and the kind of leadership our nation has always desired."
That's Matthew Dowd...Bush's pollster/strategist on the 2004 re-election campaign.
Hillary Clinton oughta be thrilled that her latest fund-raising embarrassment has been overshadowed this week by the Petraeus-Crocker story. I'll explain why tomorrrow.