The Iraq War: Going, Going, ...
How should the American people interpret the extraordinary fact that George W. Bush couldn’t convince a single retired four-star general to sign up as the new “war czar” for coordinating the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan – and finally had to settle for an active-duty three-star general who had opposed Bush’s “surge” in Iraq?
After an embarrassing failure to convince at least five former generals, including one of the original “surge” architects, retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, to take the new high-powered job, Bush finally gave the “war czar” role to Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, a known critic of Bush’s troop escalation in Iraq.
Though Bush insists that he’s “a commander guy” who follows the advice of experienced generals, the appointment of Lute belies Bush’s claim. The reality is that last December Bush and his neoconservative advisers overruled the judgments of the two field commanders for Iraq and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in ordering the “surge.”
Bush then replaced the field commanders, Gens. John Abizaid and George Casey, with Admiral William Fallon and Gen. David Petraeus. That allowed the President to resume the fiction, at least temporarily, that he listens to his commanders while castigating his Democratic critics as “politicians in Washington” who think they know best.
Abizaid, Casey, the Joint Chiefs, and new “war czar” Lute opposed the “surge” because they felt it would prove counterproductive, easing the pressure on the Iraqi army to take responsibility and on Iraq’s government to make necessary political concessions.
In August 2005, Lute, the chief operation officer for the Joint Chiefs, argued for a significant reduction in U.S. troop levels. “You simply have to back off and let the Iraqis step forward,” Lute told the Financial Times. “You have to undercut the perception of occupation in Iraq.”
In January 2006, Lute told PBS interviewer Charlie Rose that the U.S. military wanted “to see a smaller, lighter, less prominent U.S. force structure in Iraq,” both to deflect concerns about the U.S. occupation and to avoid a “dependency syndrome” inside Iraq’s government. [Washington Post, May 16, 2007]
The views of Lute and many other U.S. commanders were reflected in the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which reported in December 2006 that the situation in Iraq was “grave and deteriorating” and recommended a drawdown of U.S. military forces combined with a stronger commitment to train Iraqi forces and renewed diplomatic talks with Iraq’s neighbors.
Bush bristled at the implied criticism of his work as “war president,” declaring: “This business about graceful exit just simply has no realism to it whatsoever.”
Seizing the ‘Surge’
So, Bush and his neocon advisers looked around for what they could call an alternative strategy. They grabbed onto an idea floated by retired Gen. Keane and neoconservative scholar Frederick Kagan proposing a U.S. military escalation or “surge.”
In January, Bush unveiled his “surge” plan, which would send about 20,000 more U.S. combat troops into Iraq on top of about 140,000 already there and would station some of them in Iraqi police outposts throughout Baghdad, an approach that the U.S. military acknowledged would expose the soldiers to greater danger.
Since then, Bush and his aides have cited what they claimed were encouraging signs that the “surge” was improving the security situation in Baghdad as an argument to fend off Democratic legislative initiatives seeking an end date for the military occupation.
On May 1, Bush vetoed a war spending bill because it included timelines for phasing out a U.S. combat role in Iraq. In demanding that the Congress send him the war money with “no strings attached,” Bush said the “surge” needed more time to build on its supposedly positive results.
However, newly released statistics for the past two months don’t support the administration’s claims of progress. Not only have the number of American soldiers killed in and around Baghdad gone up but U.S. military data show that the number of attacks on Iraqi civilians and government forces have remained fairly constant, with the actual death toll possibly higher than before the “surge” began. [NYT, May 16, 2007]
Even “surge” advocates aren’t demonstrating much faith in the project. Besides Keane rebuffing a White House offer to have him oversee the project, two of Bush’s pro-escalation aides, Dr. J.D. Crouch II and Meghan O’Sullivan, announced plans to resign even before the policy was fully implemented.
When the summer temperatures start hitting 120 degrees, the scattered American troops living in police stations will face other challenges, avoiding dehydration and staying supplied. One seasoned observer of Iraq told me that the idea of scattering U.S. soldiers to police outposts was madness.
Retired Marine Gen. John Sheehan explained to the Washington Post his reasons for rejecting the “war czar” job: “The very fundamental issue is, they don’t know where the hell they’re going. … So rather than go over there [to the White House], develop an ulcer and eventually leave, I said, ‘No, thanks.’” [Washington Post, April 11, 2007]
In an Op-Ed article in the Post, Sheehan added that “there is no agreed-upon strategic view of the Iraq problem or the region [inside the administration]. We cannot ‘shorthand’ this issue with concepts such as the ‘democratization of the region’ or the constant refrain by a small but powerful group that we are going to ‘win,’ even as ‘victory’ is not defined or is frequently redefined. … These huge shortcomings are not going to be resolved by the assignment of an additional individual to the White House staff.”
Many military and intelligence analysts see the “surge” as little more than an escalation of Bush’s “stay the course” approach that has led the United States deeper and deeper into the Iraqi quagmire, with nearly 3,400 American soldiers now dead along with possibly hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.
To these critics, the “surge” is less a change in military strategy – as Bush presents it – than a shift in political tactics, dangling a repackaged war plan before the American public to buy more time and hope for some miracle, even if the scheme results in many more dead and maimed U.S. soldiers.
The major U.S. news media mostly has fallen into Bush’s trap by promoting every statement from Iraq that purports to show progress, much as happened during the early phases of the war when the administration’s happy talk went largely uncontested.
The Washington press corps also hasn’t challenged Bush when he asserts that the “surge” is a case of him following the advice of his field commanders while the Democrats supposedly are interfering with what the generals want. The truth is that the top military brass overwhelmingly opposed Bush's "surge" and even its few advocates doubt it will succeed.
However, the political battle in Washington looks to be taking place in a parallel universe from the military conflict in Iraq. While the Bush administration and much of the Washington Establishment stay in Fantasyland and wear rose-colored glasses, the reality in Iraq only gets grimmer and darker.
As long as that dual reality can be maintained, Bush won’t have to face up to how his grand scheme in the Middle East has failed. If he can delay a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq until after a new President takes office in January 2009, Bush can insist that someone else was to blame for the defeat.
Bush will have built a moat around his political legacy with the blood of American soldiers and the Iraqi people.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'
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