Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Meanwhile, Back at the War

Now that we've gotten another 9/11 anniversary out of the way, there's an opportunity to let the testimony of General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker really sink in. And unless you're one of those delusional souls for whom the corner in Iraq has been just about to be turned for years, the upshot of their dog-and-pony show is deeply depressing. But not surprising.

As I noted in my sum-up of Petraeus' first day of testimony on Monday, another 500 or so Americans will die and perhaps 20 times as many Iraqis before the general returns to Capitol Hill in March to offer another progress report and no doubt argue that the U.S. should continue to stay the course.

The general and ambassador dutifully paid lip service to the notion that the Al Maliki government has to be goosed into working toward national reconciliation or some other form of rapprochement. Lest we forget, the whole purpose of the surge strategy was to give Shiites and Sunnis the "breathing room" to find ways to come together.

They have not and show no sign of doing so, which means that the surge, the crowning achievement of the Bush administration's half-trillion dollar version of Hurricane Katrina, has been a failure in the most fundamental way since no less an authority than Petraeus himself has said that any military gains will be hollow without political gains.

As Juan Cole notes and few Americans bother to understand, there are three wars going on in Iraq: The war between Shiites and Sunnis for Baghdad and environs, the war between Shiite militias and tribes for oil-rich Basra in the south, and the war between Kurds and Arabs and Turkmen for control of oil-rich Kirkuk in the north.

Petraeus (who along with Crocker does not strike me as the partisan pawn that MoveOn and some lefty bloggers have portrayed him as) focused on the first war, and his declaration that violence in and around the capital has returned to 2006 levels is silly on its face because 2006 was a particularly violent year -- in fact, the year in which the Civil War ignited by the badly botched American occupation shifted into high gear.

As it is, the troop-level formula delineated by Petraeus would be laughable if it wasn’t so bloody tragic.

If all goes well, the general declared to fawning and speechifying House members on Monday and more critical but no less speechifying Senate members yesterday (including a passel of presidential wannabes), the number of troops in country may return to the pre-surge 130,000 level by next summer. This puts the lie to the notion that the surge was merely temporary – as in a few months -- and prompted the New York Times to call the downsizing "the rough equivalent of dropping an object and taking credit for gravity."

The most telling exchange of the second day of testimony came when Senator John Warner, a Republican foreign policy expert who has gradually racheted up his opposition to the White House's war strategy, asked Petraeus whether it was "making America safer."

Petraeus replied that he was doing his best "to achieve our objectives in Iraq."

But when Warner pressed him again, the general said: "Sir, I don’t know, actually."

In fact, Petraeus and Crocker spent much of yesterday sidestepping.

The general refused to say whether he thought successes in Anbar Province could be replicated elsewhere in Iraq, while Crocker refused to assess whether Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the homegrown Sunni insurgent group that President Bush has falsely linked to the 9/11 terror attacks, posed a greater threat to the homeland than the Al Qaeda force in Pakistan that was responsible.

Neither man would say what might prompt Iraq's bitterly divided political leadership to start talking and stop fighting, although Crocker astoundingly said that while the government is "dysfunctional," the fact Iraqi leaders recognized that was a sign of progress.

As my blogging friendRobert Stein put it:

"After all the graphs, statistics, anecdotes and guarded generalizations, they did not, could not answer the only questions that matter: When will this war end, and is it making us any safer from terrorism?

Two of our best and brightest public servants responded with the classic waiter’s shrug, 'That’s not my table.' "

A new national poll finds that only five percent of Americans put their primary trust in George Bush to resolve the war, while barely half trust Petraeus, which makes the gap between what Main Street wants and what its president is doing positively Grand Canyon-esque. (Meanwhile, a new poll of Iraqis finds that a substantial majority believe the surge has been a failure. But then what they think doesn't count, right?)

Like I said, the upshot of all of the progress reportifying is not surprising, merely tragic:

The president, with the acquiescence of Democrats and Republicans alike, has been given the wiggle room he needs to dump this catastrophe of a war on his successor, in all likelihood a Democrat who will have to try to begin a process of disengagement that should have long been underway.

Bush will endorse the Petraeus-Crocker version of reality in a prime-time television speech on Thursday night and dangle the carrot of a meaninglessly symbolic troop withdrawal before a war-weary public. But don't expect him to answer the tough questions that the general and ambassador ducked, let alone note that next summer is about the time that the Army will run out of fresh troops.

I spent much of yesterday contemplating how differently things might have turned out in the wake of the 9/11 attacks had Bush and Cheney been uniters and not dividers and hadn't started the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.

That, combined with the lead-pipe cinch certainty that the war is far, far from over, filled my snout with the stench of betrayal and left me with feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that are simply overwhelming.

Photograph by Reuters

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