Friday, January 05, 2007

There is no magic for Iraq

In his popular weekly radio and subsequent television quiz show, “You Bet Your Life,” Groucho Marx featured the “magic word.” If a contestant happened to utter it during the course of the show, he or she would instantly receive $25 or $50 or some other, inflation adjusted amount.

Next week, President Bush will do something similar when he addresses the U.S. public and the world on his plan for “victory” – his magic word – in Iraq. He will also officially trot out another magic word, one to replace the not-so-magic phrase of “stay the course.”

Groucho was a “straight-shooting” comedian who never leaked the magic word to a contestant. In contrast, Bush’s new magic word has been so widely leaked that it’s hard to imagine there is anyone in the country who hasn’t heard it. And there’s another difference: Groucho told contestants the amount of dollars they could win, but Bush will not be able to tell the public what it will cost in lives and national treasure to implement his new strategy. .

That strategy is wrapped up in Bush’s magic word: “surge.” Or maybe, given that the 3rd Infantry Division troops deploying to Iraq later this month are, for the first time, taking their long range heavy artillery, it’s SURGE.

Either way, the dictionary defines “surge” as a sudden, abrupt, strong increase; a sudden forceful flow; or to rise and move forward or upward. Water surges (billows); mobs surge (move forward suddenly); emotions surge (well-up unexpectedly). Although it can be a noun (tidal surges), most often surge denotes a process, a flow of energy that crests and then falls off, eventually returning to a “steady state.”

Bush is expected to call for a “sharp” increase – 30,000 to 40,000 troops – in the current 142,000-strong U.S. military presence in Iraq, with half to three-fourths of the increase going to Baghdad to “stabilize” security in the Iraqi capital.

The source of the troops for this “surge” remains unclear. Many suspect that Bush will do with regard to people what his administration has been doing with money already appropriated for Iraq: Whatever the policies, the laws, even the Constitution say, the White House will try an end run to get what it wants. The fighting has been paid for largely through “supplemental” spending bills in which everything is declared to be an “emergency” – thus requiring a rapid (surge) response that precludes careful scrutiny and judicious “unsurged” evaluation. For his expected announcement, Bush may simply declare an “emergency” exists with regard to Iraq, one that requires the Pentagon to temporarily suspend its guidelines on the length of tours of duty in Iraq (currently seven months for Marines and 12 months for army soldiers), reduce the interval between tours for both active and reserve components, and remove the cap on cumulative months in combat for reserve components, impose “stop-loss” actions that involuntarily keep men and women in uniform, or some combination of the above.

Also unclear is the time span for this “people surge.” Commentators talk of 12 to 18 or even 24 months. Even the briefest of these periods can hardly be regarded as sudden or unexpected or of short duration and thus would not fit the definition of surge. The current dismal state of affairs has been apparent on the horizon for some time; it is no surprise. Bush will undoubtedly try to make the case that more troops, more treasure, just a little more time thrown into Iraq now will prove the proverbial “turning point.” He will call for “one final surge” that will enable the U.S. to claim “victory” – the ultimate magic word – and turn over to the Iraqi people a country able to defend itself, govern itself, and care for its people.

Undue delay – that is, substantive congressional consideration – will be labeled obstructionist, defeatist, or even as giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

Well, in this case, Congress needs to act as a surge suppressor and to carefully look at what Bush asks for and what, as “commander-in-chief,” he threatens to decree. While it is true that the U.S. cannot have 535 commanders-in-chief, it is equally true that Congress has an obligation to the U.S. public and to those wearing military uniforms to restrain the executive branch from costly misadventures – especially war, and most especially wars of executive choice like Iraq.

If Bush wants to surge in Iraq, he would do better to work out how to surge electricity production and distribution to cities, villages, and homes. He needs to work out how to surge job opportunities for Iraqis rather than for U.S. or other foreign contractors.

In short, the message that the U.S. public wants – equivalent to Groucho’s magic phrase – and that Bush ought to deliver next week would declare: “More (electric) Power to the People.” For clearly, “More Firepower” isn’t the answer.

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