Friday, May 25, 2007

Bush Stuck on the Offense: An Analysis

In two appearances this week, President Bush took the offensive on his “war policy” by going after critics in his own party as well as the Democratic leadership in the Congress. On Wednesday he gave the commencement address at the Coast Guard Academy and on Thursday, in the Rose Garden, held his first solo press gaggle since March.

Buoyed by Congress’ retreat on the FY2007 Iraq emergency supplemental spending bill that had been shorn of withdrawal timelines and funds the entire four months remaining in this fiscal year, the president – metaphorically – was flying high. But alas, there was one unpleasant spot in the press conference – one caused by the laws of gravity that firmly anchor presidents, press, and paupers to the earth’s surface and dictate the trajectory of objects falling toward the ground.

Yes, in an entirely unprovoked action, a bird penetrated White House airspace and dropped “droppings” that fell on the sleeve of the president’s coat. To his credit, the president brushed off the assault and pressed on, giving no ground (or other advantage) on any subject. One assumes the jacket was sent off to the dry cleaners; the fate of the bird is unknown.

Looking over the transcripts of the two events, the same “fate unknown” characterizes the road ahead in Iraq as well as in Afghanistan. The administration – as the following analysis suggests – seems immobilized (or perhaps mesmerized), unable to do anything other than “stay the course” and hope that in September they can claim the glass is more than half-full and declare victory.

Considering just the commencement speech, for the most part Bush simply re-iterated the structural changes made in the federal bureaucracy and other legislation that he touts as improving the safety of the U.S. homeland since the attacks on September 11, 2001. He did provide two new statistics in the speech when he spoke of the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which now includes the Coast Guard. The United States has 360 ports protected by the Coast Guard and a shoreline of 95,000 miles that the service patrols.

The president did make three specific points that I think merit comment.

Bush: “The Iraqi government…must meet its responsibility to the Iraqi people and achieve benchmarks it has set, including adoption of a national oil law, preparations for provincial elections, progress on a new de-Baathification policy, and a review of the Iraqi constitution.”

Comment: These four items constitute the much discussed “benchmarks” that are included in the FY2007 supplemental appropriations bill that Congress is sending to the White House today. Each of these points puts the locus for action on the Iraqi government, which to date seems frozen in place by a super-gravitational force. The oil settlement, for example, is supposed to be completed by the end of May, yet key annexes dealing with revenue distribution, the new national oil company, and terms offered to foreign oil companies remain unresolved. The deadline for completing the constitutional review has already passed. And with the Iraqi parliament set for a two month vacation this summer, the chances of significant advances on any of the benchmarks appear remote at best.

Bush: “Now, in 2007, we are at a pivotal moment in this battle.”

Comment: With the lack of progress to date by the Iraqis, as described above, this seems an exaggeration. It is really a variation on the time-worn assertions that a “turning point” is at hand or that “the next six months are crucial.” The only pivot made recently was the boost or surge in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq – and the higher rate of fatalities so far in 2007.

Bush: “Victory in Iraq is important for Osama bin Laden and victory in Iraq is vital for the United States of America.”

Comment: Other remarks in this speech pertaining to bin Laden’s plan to create in Iraq terrorist cells to plan and carry out attacks outside Iraq suggest that al-Qaeda’s leaders view “victory” in Iraq as vital. From where bin Laden reportedly is hiding – along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border – he may feel that he cannot effectively influence strikes against the U.S. or other coalition partners outside of either Iraq or Afghanistan. If he could establish a planning and operational hub in Iraq, and then carry out another significant assault on the U.S., he might expect that the U.S. public would demand troops be brought back to protect the “homeland.” In contrast, “victory” in Iraq for the United States has moved from an “Iraq with a constitutional, representative government that respects civil rights and has security forces sufficient to maintain domestic order and keep Iraq from becoming a safe haven for terrorists,” to an Iraq that “is stable enough to be able to be an ally in the war on terror and to govern itself and defend itself.”

If that is what this misguided war has come down to, it can hardly be called “vital” – except for those whose lives will be lost, who will be seriously wounded, their families and friends, and those who live with the possibility that one of theirs will be the next to die.

That, not Osama bin Laden, is the real terror in the land. How deep this terror runs and how it affects the vital core of the human spirit becomes clear in the words of a 6 year old whose parent is in the war zone: “My dad’s not dead yet.”

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