Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Iraq and rhetorical aspirin

George Orwell, best known for his novel 1984 but renowned in some circles (mine, anyway) for his spirited attacks on the bureaucratic debasement of the English language, would have winced at the evasive euphemisms repeatedly employed yesterday by Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

In perhaps his most famous essay, written 62 years ago, Orwell wrote that government bureaucrats and political idealogues had grown fond of "gumming together long strips of words...and making the results presentable by sheer humbug....It is easier - even quicker, once you have the habit - to say, In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption than to say I think." He complained that the typical euphemism "falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details." Orwell likened it to "a packet of aspirins always at one's elbow."

Well, it was sure snowing yesterday when Petraeus broke out his aspirin bottle. After completing the modest U.S. troop drawdown that's already scheduled for July, he foresees "a 45-day period of consolidation and evaluation. At the end of that period, we will commence a process of assessment, to examine the conditions on the ground, and over time, determine when we can make recommendations for further reductions."

English translation: The place is a mess. We have no idea when things might get better. We're not pulling out any more troops. We're running out the clock on 2008.

Actually, I feel bad for the guy. Crocker, too. They're basically tasked with the thankless job of mopping up after George W. Bush and his discredited neocons, and one of the requisite chores is to trudge to Capitol Hill and gum together long strips of words. Nobody is going to shine in that role, waxing Orwellian on a war without end.

In a sense it was Crocker who had the worst moment, during a Senate Armed Services Committee exchange with Hillary Clinton (in her best moment), on a potentially far-reaching development that has been largely overlooked, thanks to the relentless media focus on the '08 Democratic primaries. Put on the spot by Clinton, Crocker responded predictably: He blurred the outline.

Some quick background. The Bush administration since November has been negotiating a sweeping long-term defense pact with its client regime in Iraq - a pact that, in the draft wording, would require the U.S. to provide open-ended "security assurances and commitments" to the embattled government. Bush and Prime Minister Maliki are aiming to wrap up negotiations this summer. It doesn't take a foreign policy genius to ferret out the implications of such a deal; America would be duty bound to respond, in some military fashion, when the Iraqi government was thought to be imperiled by foreign invaders or "outlaw groups" (again, the draft wording) operating inside the country. It's a blueprint for war without end, although it's couched in classic Orwellian language as a "long-term relationship of cooperation and friendship."

Given the fact that such a pact could bind us to Iraq for generations, at further expenditure of taxpayer money and American lives, and foist the Bush legacy on future presidents, one might assume that the American people (more than 60 percent of whom favor a withdrawal timetable) would at least get the chance to have their voices heard - through their representatives in the U.S. Senate. Because, as many legal experts have already pointed out, this deal has all the characteristics of a treaty, the kind that constitutionally requires the approval of 67 senators. After all, when Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower gave security assurances to Japan, South Korea, and the Phillippines after World War II, those pacts were treated as treaties and submitted for Senate ratification.

But the Bush regime doesn't intend to go that route.

Clinton has complained about this several times during the Democratic debates; she has been far more vocal on the issue than Barack Obama. And when Crocker brought up the "cooperation and friendship" pact yesterday - explaining that America must exhibit "continued resolve and commitment," that this pact would provide the necessary "authorizations and protections," and that, rest assured, "Congress will remain fully informed as these negotiations proceed" - Clinton threw out a simple question:

"Does the administration plan to submit this agreement to our Congress?"

Here was Crocker in response, with Orwell turning in his grave: "At this point, senator, we do not anticipate that the agreements will have within them any elements that would require the advise and consent procedure, we intend to negotiate this as an executive agreement."

English translation: Buzz off.

(By the way, Clinton has long been sponsoring a bill that would deny federal money for the implementation of such a pact, unless that pact was sent to the Senate for approval. As she said yesterday, after Crocker uttered his Orwellism, she finds it "odd" that Bush wants to submit the pact to the Iraqi Parliament for ratification, but not to the U.S. Senate. And yes, you read that correctly, that is Bush's intention.)

But at least one member of the Bush team isn't swaddling his words. It was Dick Cheney, three weeks ago, who best summed up the administration mindset; when asked whether he was cognizant of the national polls showing that two-thirds of Americans viewed the war as a mistake, he dismissively replied: "So?" Orwell would have been grateful that, for once, somebody had not sought to dull the pain of candor by reaching for the aspirin.