Gen. David Petraeus is reportedly going to tell Congress today that the surge is working and the military just needs more time to finish the job. Putting aside the fact that Petraeus wrote an op-ed piece in the Washington Post on Sept. 26, 2004 (just over a month before the presidential election) that said he saw "tangible progress" and "Iraqi leaders ... stepping forward" and "leading their country," making his "we're almost there" argument today highly suspect, the real issue is that the media will report the assessment of Gen. Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, in just the way that the Bush administration wants them to, as if the level of security gains was the main issue.
The Petraeus/Crocker (as a Bush appointee, the last two letters of Crocker's name seem unnecessary in this setting) report is just a smoke screen for the White House to hide behind while they stretch the war to the end of the Bush administration.
Instead, the media should be reporting on the real issue at stake, defined not by me, but by President Bush himself in his January 10, 2007 address to the American people. Following Bush's logic from that speech, even if Gen. Petraeus is right, and the surge has been a big success, in reality, the surge has failed.
What I mean by that is that the whole rationale for the surge when President Bush announced it in January was to provide security so the Iraqi government could make political progress in solving the issues that divide the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in the country, mainly how they will govern themselves and how they will divide up the oil revenues and other natural resources of the country.
But why listen to me, when you could read Bush's exact words from the January 10, 2007 address:
"I've made it clear to the Prime Minister and Iraq's other leaders that America's commitment is not open-ended. If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people -- and it will lose the support of the Iraqi people."
He went on to note that an increase in security would give the Iraqi government "the breathing space it needs to make progress in other critical areas. Most of Iraq's Sunni and Shia want to live together in peace -- and reducing the violence in Baghdad will help make reconciliation possible."
Finally, he noted:
"A successful strategy for Iraq goes beyond military operations. Ordinary Iraqi citizens must see that military operations are accompanied by visible improvements in their neighborhoods and communities. So America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced."I really suggest you read Bush's speech in its entirety, because it shoots down virtually every argument his administration is making now to sustain the surge.
As Bush himself noted in January, the benchmarks for the Iraqi government did not come from Congress, but from the Iraqi government itself. So, it is disingenuous now for the administration to try and argue that Congress's expectations were too high and that the benchmarks were unreachable. If they were so tough to get to, why did the Iraqis themselves come up with them?
Even the most generous report has found that the Iraqis have fallen exceptionally short on the vast majority of the benchmarks, and nobody can make an argument that the Iraqi government has shown any willingness to make the hard choices and sacrifices necessary to bring all of the the country's sects together. That is why Bush and the Republicans are talking so much about alleged security gains. It's because they can't point to any political gains.
Let's look at the situation in Iraq now based on Bush's remarks in January: He gave the Iraqis space to come together, and the government has made virtually no progress, spending a month on vacation and acting like it was way more interested in exacting revenge on Sunnis and consolidating Shiite power than coming up with any kind of unification plan. So, by Bush's own scorecard, isn't it time to go?
Bush doesn't like the results of his own game, so now he's changing the rules. But if the media doesn't report his earlier remarks, he might just get away with it.
Even Bush's original formulation -- if we make Baghdad safer, the politicians can solve the country's sectarian problems -- is turning out to be a completely backward assumption. Retired Marine General James Jones, who is now the Chairman of the Iraqi Security Forces Independent Assessment Commission (not exactly someone you would think of as being an anti-war lefty), made the point on "Meet the Press" yesterday (you can read the transcript here) that security will not bring about political reconciliation, but rather only after there is a solution to the sectarian conflict can there be an end to the violence.
Tim Russert quoted a Washington Post article to Gen. Jones about his commission's findings that despite the Bush administration's insistence that security improvements will create "breathing space" for political reconciliation of the sects, the commission turned the “national reconciliation ... equation on its head, saying that long-term security advances are impossible without political progress. Despite all that remains to be done on the military front, the commission says, ‘the single most important event that could immediately and favorably affect Iraq’s direction and security is political reconciliation. Sustained progress within the Iraqi Security Forces depends on such a political agreement.'"
Gen. Jones responded that the Washington Post's characterization of the commission's findings was "fair," and that the commission started from that point of view. He said, "the reconciliation is absolutely the key to measurable and rapid progress."
What about all the White House mantra about withdrawing American troops leading to more violence? Gen. Jones also has something to say about that:
"[I]n general, we think that the, the notion that we’re not going to be there forever is—flies in the face of what we see on the ground. It is a massive footprint. We, we do—we have occupied Saddam Hussein’s former palaces. That in itself sends a, a mixed message to, to the Iraqis. We believe that the, the idea of transition should be captured more centrally and focused with greater focus to, to give the, the direction and the progress on a measured rate about how we’re going to hand things over to Iraqis and on what time frame. And, and we think that we are arriving at a strategic point where, with the ability of the Iraqi army and the—hopefully the police force to take over the internal problems of Iraq, that we can—the commanders can take another look at how we use our forces, what their mission set is, what they do, and that will, that will contribute to a force reshaping and rebalancing."
That "reshaping and rebalancing" would include some reduction in U.S. forces in Iraq. Gen. Jones embraces the obvious fact that the Bush administration does not seem to understand that our very presence in Iraq incites violence.
Gen. Jones was interviewed on "Meet the Press" with fellow commission member Charles Ramsey, a former Washington, D.C. police commissioner, who related an incident that demonstrates how the Iraqi government is failing to move towards reconciliation. He said that national police leadership recommended that a new brigade of national police in the area of Samarra should be made up of 55 percent Shiites and 45 percent Sunnis. But when the Iraqi government went to actually make up the force, they decided it should be 99 percent Shia and 1 percent Sunni.
It is clear that while American soldiers have fought, been wounded, and died for the cause of allowing the Iraqis to come together and overcome their sectarian divisions, the Iraqis themselves have been more interested in looking out for their own sects.
There will be a lot of talk after Gen. Petraeus gives his report today about measurable security progress due to the surge, with Republicans, as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) did on "This Week With George Stephanopoulos" yesterday, arguing, "Look, we're making Iraq safer! We have to keep at it. The price of losing is too high."
While the media robotically reports these claims, most news outlets will not talk about how the alleged security gains do not involve Shiites and Sunnis putting their differences aside. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) made the point on the same edition of "This Week With George Stephanopoulos," pointing out that while the administration cites Anbar province as a place where violence has been reduced, that transformation involved conflicts of Sunnis against other Sunnis. There was no Sunni-Shiite reconciliation in Anbar.
The problem is, even if the administration is right about the military progress (and there is a lot of evidence they are wrong, including a great article on the front page of the New York Times yesterday), the real issue is the lack of political reconciliation going on. All this talk about alleged gains is just political theater. The bottom line is that the Iraqi government's conduct has not warranted our continued military support.
Our military is stretched to its limits. We think of the U.S. as having limitless capability, with the ability to take on any challenge we want. But the reality is that without a draft and/or more extensions of tours of duty (which present a set of problems of their own), there is a limit to what the American armed forces can do. Bush decided to dedicate a huge chunk of our military capability to a foolish and damaging war in Iraq. There will be no easy solutions for getting out of this mess, but I know one thing for sure: The answer is not to ignore the evidence on the ground and continue to sacrifice American military lives and trillions of dollars. No matter what Gen. Petraeus reports today, there is nothing the U.S. military can do if the Iraqis aren't willing to overcome their own sectarian conflicts.
By the terms Bush laid out in his own speech to the American people in January, the underlying purpose of the surge has failed, even if the military has done what it set out to do. But instead of the president admitting he was wrong (does he ever?), he is changing the scoring system, trying to buy more time for a "we're almost there" policy that has failed for nearly five years.
It's time for the media to hold Bush to his earlier remarks and stop reporting the administration's claims like they were facts, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.
It's also time for members of both parties to finally stand up and say "no" to the president. And if they don't, it's time for the American electorate to hold those who fail to act accountable. Holding politicians accountable for their actions is the job of the voters in an election, right? Let's hope they do their job better than the administration has running the government.