Here's the bottom line on the Iraq debate: The guy with the most medals wins.
Or, more specifically, the president who hides behind the guy with the medals...he wins.
Fact and substance are apparently meaningless at this point. The troop surge is actually a failure - when measured against the original definition offered last winter by President Bush, and again last spring by General David Petraeus. Bush said the surge was supposed to create "breathing space" for the Shiites and Sunnis to effect political reconciliation in Baghdad; in May, Petraeus told the Associated Press' annual meeting that the goal of the surge "is the genuine demonstration of a willingness by all parties to reconcile with one another, to truly embrace what is enshrined in the Iraqi constitution -- one Iraq, minority rights, no safe haven for terrorists and a government that is representative of and responsive to all Iraqis, and all is underlined. I mean, that's, I think, where we're all sort of focusing like a laser beam."
Yet there has been virtually no political reconciliation, and little progress is foreseeable.
Moreover, for every "metric" of declining violence offered on Capitol Hill this week by Petraeus (who has been tasked by Bush with assessing his own work, and essentially defending the war in which he has long had a vested interest), there are a slew of countervailing "metrics" offered by far more independent analyists.
Moreover, his recommendation of a troop drawdown by next spring or summer is also virtually meaningless - it is perverse to even call it "news" - because (a) the troop surge was always supposed to be temporary (remember?), therefore a return to pre-surge troop levels during the summer of 2008 will leave us roughly where we were last winter, and (b) a reduction was always in the cards, given the severe strains on military readiness and the fact that roughly 30,000 soldiers would complete their 15-month tours of duty.
Moreover, his praise for the Iraqi government's buildup of security forces is also virtually meaningless. He stated Monday: "Currently, there are 445,000 individuals on the payrolls of Iraq's Interior and Defense Ministries. Based on recent decisions by Prime Minister Maliki, the number of Iraq's security forces will grow further by the end of this year, possibly by as much as 40,000" - but conveniently failed to mention that a new independent report helmed by retired General James Jones paints a grim picture of those same security forces. Jones says they are riddled with corruption and "rife with political and sectarian intrigues," which seems a lot more important than how many individuals are, in Patraeus' words, "on the payrolls."
Most Americans, of course, know full well that Bush's front man is merely putting a new spin on the old stay-the-course, plead-for-patience message - the one that Bush can no longer deliver on his own because his credibility is shredded (witness the latest New York Times-CBS poll, which found that only five percent of Americans put their primary trust in Bush to resolve the war). But most people are also cynical about Petraeus as well. According to the latest USA Today-Gallup poll, 53 percent do not believe that he is sufficiently independent or objective; in the latest AP-Ipsos poll, 58 percent said that the surge has failed (with only 36 percent saying otherwise); and in several polls, strong majorities said that Bush will keep doing what he wants anyway.
But, politically speaking, it really doesn't matter what the public thinks. The Petraeus road show (which continues today on the Senate side) has only two real purposes:
1. Mollifying congressional Republicans, who are unquestioningly loyal by instinct and have been desparately looking for a reason to remain supine.
2. Dividing the opposition, by sowing fresh discord between the characteristically timid congressional Democrats and the party's liberal antiwar base.
Bush's aim, of course, is to retain sufficient votes on Capitol Hill, in order to forestall any threat to his war policies as he enters his final year. And it looks like he is succeeding.
Keeping the congressional Republicans in line is crucial. Petraeus may well have offered enough "metrics," and enough sufficient teases about possible troop drawdowns, to satisfy enough of the wavering GOP members. Those Republicans (especially moderates facing tough '08 races) who, just a few months ago, were threatening to bolt from the president in September, may now convince themselves that they have been given enough political cover. Norm Coleman, the vulnerable GOP senator who is up for re-election in Minnesota, gushed his gratitude today, telling Petraeus, "I applaud the troop withdrawals...I applaud the fact that it will be at pre-surge levels next year."
So perhaps the new Republican battle cry will be "Let's wait to see what General Petraeus says next April." And if they hold firm, that will be enough to foil the Democrats, who are hampered by their thin majorities and thus can't do anything substantive to change the course of this war without scores of GOP defections.
The Petraeus talking points will probably also provide sufficient political cover to the '08 GOP presidential candidates. Bush has had them in mind for quite some time. In his interviews with biographer Robert Draper, he tipped his hand: "I'm playing for October-November, to get us in the position where the presidential candudates will be comfortable in sustaining a presence," referring to the U.S. military presence in Iraq.
As for the perpetually flummoxed Democrats, I was struck by this passage this morning in The New York Times: "...only a few Democrats on two House committees seemed inclined to dispute with much vigor the assessments provided by a commander with medals on his chest and four stars on his shoulder." (No surprise there. Didn't I already signal that satirically, last Friday?)
And just as the Democrats were struggling to challenge their decorated celebrity guest, they also had to deal with fallout from the tactically stupid moveon.org newspaper ad - the one that ran yesterday in The Times, which referred to Petraeus as "General Betray Us." This was truly a gift to the Republicans, who are happiest these days when they can obscure their Iraq failures by changing the subject. And when a group on the left suggests in an ad headline that a military general might be betraying his country...well, what a grand opportunity to change the subject.
It doesn't matter that the copy in the ad was far more reasonable - and accurate -than the headline (example: "We'll hear of neighborhoods where violence has decreased. But we won't hear that those neighborhoods have been ethnically cleansed.") What matters is that moveon.org handed the Republicans a weapon, and the Republicans used it to hammer the elected Democrats who are already petrified of being branded as anti-military, to put the Democrats back on their heels right at the moment when Democrats were hoping that Petraeus' flawed arguments would dominate the news cycle.
For instance, Chris Dodd, one of the most outspokenly antiwar presidential candidates, had to devote precious air time last night to a denunciation of the moveon.org ad. He told CNN, "This is not about the personality of General Petraeus. I have respect for him as a military individual here giving his best assessment. And even his assessments indicate this is not going to be easy at all, even under the best of scenarios they're describing here. So the debate ought not to be about the personalities. The debate is about the policy."
So when the Democrats are scuffling with their own base, that's another advantage for Bush.
All told, Bush appears closer than ever to achieving his goal: Kicking the can down the road; keeping at least 100,000 troops on the ground in Iraq through the end of his tenure (with all the additional casualties that will ensue), and fobbing off his signature disaster on whoever comes next.
This isn't nearly as ambitious as his grandiose goal of turning Iraq into a peaceful western democracy, but at least his current objective is achievable.
Meanwhile, here's my favorite exchange, from Petraeus' Senate committee appearance this afternoon...
Republican Senator John Warner: Are you able to say at this time (that) if we continue what you have laid before the Congress here, this strategy, do you feel that that is making America safer?
General Petraeus: Sir, I believe this is indeed the best course of action to achieve our objectives in Iraq.
Senator Warner: Does that make America safer?
General Petraeus: Sir, I don't know, actually.
(Two hours later, Petraeus amended his response and said that he should have answered "yes.")