Sunday, August 24, 2008


September 20, 2007

Iraq Week at the capital has come and gone, and what a week it was. General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker flew in to give their mandated progress reports to Congress. President Bush followed up with his own address to the nation. The candidates had their opportunity to grandstand. And revealed its hubris with that vile "General Betray Us" ad. (Punning on a person’s name is the lowest form of the lowest form of humor, and it may cause a self-immolation comparable only to Howard Dean’s "I Have a Scream" speech that shot down his high-flying presidential campaign in 2004.)

What can we make of the week that was?

While there is no doubt that General Petraeus’s report and recommendations were his own, as he made a point of emphasizing at the hearings, there is also no doubt that he and Ambassador Crocker were part of a masterful administration plan to shift the political ground. Nowhere was it clearer than in the president’s address last Thursday.

The speech was laced with the usual self-vindicating hyperbole about the terrorist threat (though the general, when asked by Senator Warner of Virginia whether operations in Iraq are making America safer, said, "I don’t know"). But the word "victory," so long a staple of Bush rhetoric, was conspicuously absent. It was replaced by the equivocal "success," "succeed," and "successful," which he used eleven times. And success, even to the gung-ho president, was now only a grasp at straws. In Anbar province, he proudly noted, some Sunni sheiks, formerly enemy insurgents, have formed alliances with American forces to flush out (also Sunni) Al Qaeda cells (of course, one of those sheiks was murdered the very day of the speech, and the alliances themselves may be of only temporary convenience, typical of the fluidity of the sects and sub-sects all over the country). And yes, he said, "the Iraqi army is becoming more capable, although there is a great deal of work to be done to improve the national police" (actually, the report recently issued by the James Jones commission called the police force "operationally ineffective" and recommended it be disbanded).

These "successes" — neither Petraeus nor Crocker were quite able to call them that — were enough to project sending 5,700 troops home by Christmas and the rest of the surge-force home by July.

"The principle guiding my decisions on troop levels in Iraq," Bush declared, "is ‘return on success.’ The more successful we are, the more American troops can return home." But, he cautioned, "success will require U.S. political, economic, and security engagement that extends beyond my presidency."

So there you have it: A few bars of "I’ll Be Home for Christmas" and many more of "The Long Run."

Despite the paucity of good news, the political ground shifted. Even though the promised troop reductions are nothing more than a validation of the word "surge," they sparked a faint flame of hope for an end to the occupation. And conversely, even though the predictions of keeping troops in Iraq for years to come were something no one wanted to hear, they gave the sense that at last our leaders were speaking realistically about the situation, with neither the blather of "victory" from the president nor the pseudo-bliss of immediate pullout from dovish Democrats. The president will get his funding. His successor will get it too.

Still, there is no comprehensive plan. The general was there, the ambassador was there, the secretary of defense made the talk-show rounds at the end of the week — but where was the secretary of state? If there ever were a time to reveal a true change of course, a vision for the future calling into play all the nations with a stake in the stabilization and viability of Iraq, this was it. But there is no such vision, from anywhere. This isn’t about Anbar or the body-count in Baghdad; it’s about Iran and Turkey and Syria and Jordan and Israel and Lebanon and Saudi Arabia and Dubai and the European Union too. It’s about that despised and sidelined but potentially effective body, the United Nations. And it’s about those two million Iraqi refugees whose flight has sucked the talent and creativity from the country.

And lastly but not leastly, it’s about the Democrats. It is a sad thing to see that sorry bunch of presidential aspirants sniping at each other when they should be working as a team to do what the current administration has failed to do: present to the public a unified eight-year plan for peace across the Middle East. They have no lack of resources for this task - the brightest military and diplomatic minds have been churning out books, articles, and proposals with astounding speed and with no lack of insight. Why couldn’t the candidates and the Democratic leadership subvert the dysfunctional primary process, gather in a smokeless room, and come up with a candidate, a cabinet, and a plan?

In a phrase that tarred the first President Bush, it’s "the vision thing." For four years now, neither the administration nor its opponents have been able to see past the next hurdle. Beyond the fuzzy utopia of "a free Iraq," the "way forward" needs a broad and practical program.

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