Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Playing With History -- Again

On January 10, 2007, President Bush announced that there would be no “beginning of the end” of U.S. military involvement in Iraq’s multi-faceted violence. Rather than heeding the message – “end the war” – delivered by the voters a mere two months earlier, Bush chose to increase trop levels in a six-month “surge.” At the same time, General David Petraeus, armed with a known but untried (in this war) tactical approach, was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the commander of all coalition forces in Iraq.

Both General Petraeus and the White House assured the Congress and the public that six months after the surge began they would be given a candid report of the political and military situations in Iraq. Within days, however, the Bush administration was making “adjustments” to what had been promised.

- The number of troops in the “surge,” announced as 21,000 by the president in his January 10 speech, actually would be almost 29,000;

- Although the announcement was made January 10, the first units would not be in-country until February, so the “six month” clock for the report to Congress would not be due until August.

- The surge itself was so extended that the build-up would not be completed until late June at the earliest. General Petraeus, the Pentagon, the administration, and Members of Congress who supported the president’s conduct of the war all pushed for a further delay in the report to give 60 days for the full weight of the additional forces to be brought into play. Thus the “Petraeus report,” as it became known, was slipped to September.

In pushing the “Petraeus report” into September, the White House succeeded in dampening its impact. Had it been delivered in July or even early August, it would have been a singular event. Pushing it into September rendered it as simply one among many reports – at best primus inter pares (first among many).

Congress passed legislation requiring the White House to provide an interim progress report on conditions in Iraq in July and again in
September.

Congress created an independent commission, chaired by retired NATO supreme commander General James Jones and consisting of 20 retired military generals and admirals and retired senior police chiefs, to evaluate Iraqi security sector organization, professionalism, and effectiveness.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff decided to provide their own assessment of the war in Iraq in early September to the Secretary of Defense and the White House.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) was scheduled to report to Congress on the Iraqi government’s success in achieving the eighteen “benchmarks” that were “agreed” by Washington and Baghdad as indices of the ability of the Iraqi government to stand on its own.

After two long days of testimony September 10 an September 11, many in Congress remained unimpressed with what, by that time was “the Petraeus plan.”

Now it is the president’s turn; he will address the nation tomorrow n ight, September 13. He is expected to announce that, in keeping with the principle of “listening to the generals in the field and not the politicians in Washington,” he is ready to direct the start of a modest drawdown of forces. Watch for two things:

- a modification or “variation” of the course described by General Petraeus (e.g., timing, destination, or mission assigned to withdrawn troops) to avoid the impression that the “decider” is really a sham stance as the president has no different or better plan than the one described by the generals; or

- the announcement of a “new” parallel diplomatic or economic initiative so that, should another reversal happen on the warfighting front, the White House would be positioned to separate a “promising” presidential initiative from a faltering “Petraeus” plan.

Should the president announce September 13 that the troops will begin a withdrawal, the dynamic of U.S.-Iraq relations will be on a new footing. Washington has “leverage” in Iraq now because there are 160,000 U.S. troops in-country. But with each brigade combat team that leaves and is not replaced, that leverage will diminish, even if, as Pentagon spokespersons insist will be the case, the U.S. will have to help the Iraqi army for as long as a decade with logistics, training, air power, and command and control.

In informal remarks on September 12, former California congressman and Clinton White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta noted that ultimately the U.S. cannot force the Iraqis to “buy-in” to a U.S. vision. At some point, Washington may well find that its “leverage” is not much more than suggesting goals and proposing paths to reach them – either or both of which Baghdad can accept or reject.

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