Wednesday, April 9, 2008

A Year Later, But Bush and Petraeus's Story Is the Same

Wait 'til September. Like a modern, grotesque version of the "Wait 'til next year" mantra of fans of the perpetually losing Brooklyn Dodgers, Gen. David Petraeus went back before a Senate committee yesterday and said essentially the same thing he said a year ago: Wait until September, and then we'll reassess.

The Bush administration's strategy, as articulated by its token military mouthpiece, is like a seven-year-old's approach to staying up late. Ask your mom to go to bed at midnight? You're sure to get a no. But if you can push it as far as you can with anguished pleas of "ten more minutes," you might get close. Essentially, that has been the Bush approach for the last few years.

After four years of the "stay the course" disaster in Iraq, and after the American people spoke loudly and clearly in November 2006 by handing control of the house and senate to the Democrats based solely on the war issue, Bush instituted a "surge" of American troops. We were told the reason for the surge was to provide security and lower the level of violence, thus giving the Iraqi government the breathing space it needed to to take over security responsibilities and begin the reconciliation process.

Don't believe me? Well, let's look at Bush's own words, in his January 10, 2007 address to the American people:

"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."

"America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced."

"To establish its authority, the Iraqi government plans to take responsibility for security in all of Iraq's provinces by November. To give every Iraqi citizen a stake in the country's economy, Iraq will pass legislation to share oil revenues among all Iraqis. To show that it is committed to delivering a better life, the Iraqi government will spend $10 billion of its own money on reconstruction and infrastructure projects that will create new jobs. To empower local leaders, Iraqis plan to hold provincial elections later this year. And to allow more Iraqis to re-enter their nation's political life, the government will reform de-Baathification laws, and establish a fair process for considering amendments to Iraq's constitution."

How much of the president's promises were met? Nearly none of them.

Last year, Petraeus came to Congress and said, in essence, let the surge do its work, and then we'll see what the situation is. The surge might have brought down violence, but it failed in its main intention, which was to have the Iraqi government take real steps to move the country forward. So, by the terms laid out by Bush and Petraeus last year, the surge's goals have not been met. By those rules of the game, it seems like it's time to start bringing the troops home. But Petraeus is asking for yet another wait-and-see period. For what?

The administration and its GOP flunkies in Congress love to talk about how the surge worked, because violence levels were temporarily reduced. But what the president and his followers (including presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain) no longer talk about is the progress of the Iraqi government, because the Iraqis have fallen far short of the benchmarks it laid out itself (and which were embraced by Bush). If not for some late, ineffectual moves, the Iraqis would have accomplished nearly nothing since the surge. Even with their recent efforts, they have only fulfilled four of the 18 benchmarks.

Reconciliation isn't happening in Iraq, as the recent clashes with al-Sadr's forces have shown. Even Petraeus admitted in his testimony to the Senate committee: "We haven’t turned any corners. We haven’t seen any lights at the end of the tunnel."

While the U.S. pours half a trillion dollars into Iraq during an economic downturn and risks the lives of hundreds of thousands of its soldiers, the Iraqis haven't done nearly enough to save their own country. In fact, Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, pointed out yesterday that Iraq has $30 billion in oil revenue kept in U.S. banks. Remember all those claims by the administration in 2003 that the Iraqi oil revenue would pay for the war? That's okay, Bush doesn't either.

Apparently, Bush was just kidding when he said in that 2007 speech that he would hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks, and that the American commitment was not open-ended. Because when Petraeus testified to the Senate committee yesterday, he asked them (and us) to wait until September. Again. Just like last year. And when the last of the surge forces are sent home in July, the number of U.S. soldiers in Iraq will be the same as it was in January 2007 when Bush made his speech and admitted that "we need to change our strategy in Iraq." In other words, Petraeus wants to go back to the status quo of a time when even the ever-optimistic president said things weren't working.

I think I speak for a majority of the American people when I say that time has run out on the president. Bush told us for four years to "stay the course," but his policy was a failure. He then asked us to give the Iraqi government a chance with the surge, but the Iraqi government didn't step up. It's time to say enough is enough. From the economy to health care to our infrastructure, the U.S. needs to invest in our own country now.

As importantly, the Iraq war is weakening us as a nation. As the whole debate over keeping troops in Iraq goes back and forth, two factors are not mentioned nearly often enough. First, it is questionable as to whether the U.S. can sustain such a large deployment of soldiers in Iraq for much longer. We are stretched to our limits. Some would say beyond. Sen. Joseph Biden said keeping 140,000 military people in Iraq is "unsustainable." Army vice chief of staff Gen. Richard Cody testified to a Senate committee last week that the army is"out of balance," worn out from the extended tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even Petraeus admitted that long and repeated tours have led to "considerable" stress on the troops.

If we know we can't keep such a large force in Iraq indefinitely, what are we waiting for? As Sen. Barack Obama asked during Ambassador Ryan Crocker's testimony yesterday, what constitutes enough gains to warrant a pull-back of American troops? Or, put another way, Petraeus wants us to wait until September, but what are we waiting for?

The second under-discussed issue is the profound negative effect the war in Iraq has had on America's military readiness. As Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) pointed out today, "Iraq is also preventing us from effectively preparing for the next conflict." Cody said in his testimony last week, "I've never seen our lack of strategic depth be where it is today." Cody also laid out what the military needs to be ready for "full-spectrum operations," and noted that "we don't have that today."

Americans like to think of our country's military capabilities as being bottomless, but they are not. And if you read the statements of too many military officers and experts, the commitment of Iraq has made the country vulnerable in a way it hasn't been previously.

Republicans love to argue that anything short of "victory" in Iraq would be catastrophic. But, of course, by framing the question that way, the GOP is stacking the deck. It is important to note that there is a school of thought, with many military men like retired Lt. General William E. Odom a part of it, that while the surge has had some effect on the violence in Iraq, it has done more harm than good, further deepening the factionalization of the country, rather than moving to bring people together. Others, like Biden, believe the ultimate solution will be to give more power to the provinces and the local sects, allowing Sunni areas to be governed by Sunnis, and Shia tribes to be ruled by those tribes, for example. These views of the situation in Iraq agree that the American troop presence is actually spurring violence, and if the U.S. was to withdraw, it could actually be beneficial to the situation on the ground.

An open-ended U.S. commitment also fails to give any incentive to the Iraqi government to work out the hard issues it faces. After all, if we're there to protect them, why shouldn't the Maliki government use its power to settle old scores rather than move the country forward? Republicans like to talk about "surrender dates," but, again, such language stacks the deck. It is more likely that if the Iraqi government knew its security benefactor would be leaving, its officials would move quickly to cut the best deal it could.

Since this administration has gotten virtually every prediction about what would happen in Iraq wrong from the first day of the war, you'll forgive me if I don't accept as gospel its view of what will happen if we pull out of Iraq.

With the Iraqi government falling short of its own benchmarks, the country fractured by ethnic divisions, an unacceptable amount of American lives and finances disrupted, and the U.S. military in need of an opportunity to rebuild, it's time to tell Petraeus and Bush that we will not wait until September. It's time for a new Iraq policy, one that will support our troops and our financial and military well-being. It's time to begin a responsible withdrawal of our troops from Iraq.

We can't afford to wait until September. No more "ten more minutes" requests should be granted. It's bed time.