Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Remember that "Plan for Victory" in November '05?....Oh. You don't?

Much ink and air time has been expended lately on the fact that President Bush chose to postpone, until after the holidays, his long-awaited speech on “the way forward” in Iraq.

For instance, the White House press corps has been peppering spokesman Tony Snow about the delay, and Snow has assured everybody that the Decider is just being deliberative: “This is not not knowing what he wants to do; this is out of an absolute determination to do this right, making sure that he is absolutely convinced that the pieces have been put together, he's gotten the best advice, he's gotten the best facts, and that he now has the policy that he thinks will be the best to move forward.”

What puzzles me, however, is why anyone at this point would assume that anything Bush says is going to (a) break new strategic ground, or (b) quell the sectarian chaos, or (c) lodge in the American memory. On the contrary, we seem to have forgotten that he has delivered dozens of speeches on Iraq over the past few years, most of them instantly forgotten, with nary a phrase that can be invoked years from now as testaments to either his eloquence or prescience.

So as we all brace for the next one, the post-holiday address that may well unveil “the surge,” perhaps it is best to dampen expectations by revisiting one of his earlier, much-awaited rhetorical forays, and taking note of its remarkably short shelf life, its yawning chasm between assertion and fact.

It was just over a year ago, on Nov. 30, 2005, when Bush outlined what he called his “strategy for victory” (not to be confused with the January 2007 strategy for victory), during a speech at the U.S. Naval Academy. He said, for instance, “we are pursuing a comprehensive strategy in Iraq….On the security side, coalition and Iraqi security forces are on the offensive against the enemy.” He said that “Iraqi forces have made real progress,” and that “they’re helping to turn the tide of this struggle in freedom’s favor.”

That was good for one news cycle. The problem is, those words are worthless today; not even his own military leaders bother to endorse any talk about turning the tide. As Marine Lt. Gen. John Sattler, director of strategic plans and policy for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Monday, during a briefing on the Pentagon’s latest quarterly report on Iraq, “The violence has escalated at an unbelievably rapid pace. We have to get ahead of that violent cycle, break that continuous chain of sectarian violence.”

Flash back again to that speech one year ago. At another point, Bush lauded the training of Iraqi police officers: “Iraq has now six basic police academies, and one in Jordan, that together produce over 3500 new police officers every ten weeks…As the training has improved, so has the quality of the recruits being trained. Even though the terrorists are targeting Iraqi police and army recruits, there is no shortage of Iraqis who are willing to risk their lives to secure the future of a free Iraq.”

But again, today’s factual reality has rendered those words inoperative. The new Pentagon report frankly points out that many of those ballyhooed police officers are helping the sectarian killers roam at will: “Shia death squads leveraged support from some elements of the Iraqi Police Services and the National Police, who facilitated freedom of movement and provided advance warning of (security) operations. This is a major reason for the increased levels of murders and executions.”

Here, too, is Bush one year ago: “Iraqi (military) units are growing more independent and more capable; they are defending their new democracy with courage and determination….their confidence is growing…”

But yesterday, Sattler said that even though the number of trained Iraqi forces was expected this month to reach 325,000, the number of available troops – after factoring in all the Iraqis who are “on leave” or who have quit – is actually only 196,000. And as for those aforementioned well-trained police units, the number of battalions deemed ready for “lead responsibility” fell during the autumn season from six to two.

One year ago, Bush also declared that “people are expressing their opinions freely on the streets of Baghdad,” a remark that today might well puzzle the people of Baghdad, who seem to be mostly preoccupied with staying alive. The Pentagon report notes that, last January, there were 180 sectarian “executions,” mostly in Baghdad; during the month of October, the number was 1028.

Bush also said, in that ’05 speech, that “we’re also helping (the Iraqi troops) build a democracy that is worthy of their sacrifice…the Iraqi people have made incredible progress on the road to lasting freedom.” Contrast that assertion with today’s factual reality; yesterday, Peter Rodman, an assistant Defense Secretary, told reporters that the ever-escalating violence is now “shaking the institutions” of our client government.

But perhaps the striking aspect of the Naval Academy speech is the material that isn’t there at all.

That day, Bush blamed the violence in Iraq on what he called three distinct groups: the Sunni Arabs who had lost the “privileged status” they enjoyed under Saddam Hussein; the Hussein loyalists who had held power under Hussein; and al Qaeda fighters. Yet there was no mention of the growing presence of the violent Shiite militias (major players in the sectarian civil war of 2006). In particular, Bush said nothing about the Mahdi Army (controlled by a cleric who is close to the Iraqi prime minister), even though that militia was already a prominent force in the streets. It is cited by the Pentagon today as perhaps the greatest threat to security in Iraq.

In other words, no speech at this point can be expected to “turn the tide,” not when the facts on the ground are clearly beyond his control. Most Americans sense this as well; in the latest CNN poll, 70 percent oppose his handling of Iraq, a record high.

Nor can we assume that Bush’s potential “surge” of additional troops will fundamentally change those facts; Pentagon official Sattler didn’t seem to think so yesterday: “I don’t know how many forces you could push into a country, either U.S. or coalition or Iraqi forces, that could cover the whole country, where these death squads couldn’t find somebody.”

And now, in the wake of reports that the Joint Chiefs of Staff are skeptical about the workability of a “surge,” Bush has actually reached a fascinating juncture. Would he deliver a speech that overrules the military? Back in that ’05 speech, he said: “If our military leaders tell me we need more troops, I will send them” – but what happens if they tell him NOT to send more troops?

Maybe in January he will simply declare, “I will settle for nothing less than complete victory.” That’s what he said at the Naval Academy. If he uses it again, we will know that none of the evidence from the reality-based community has made a dent.