Texas Hold 'Em

If there's one salient feature of the Bush administration it is that it generally does the opposite of what it says -- its policies are the opposite of what its rhetoric claims or proclaims. When Bush criticizes his opponents for something, it's usually a good indicator that it's something he's done or planning to do. So when Bush took the unusual step of allowing an op-ed piece to be published under his name in the Wall Street Journal, it was bound to offer some insight into administration plans, albeit indirectly.

After having benefited from and colluded with a legislative branch for the past six years that was among the most ruthlessly partisan in modern history, Bush (well, his speechwriter) attempted to frame the political debate at the start of the 110th congress by decrying politics as usual. Cutting Democrats out of the process of crafting legislation, preventing them from offering amendments, holding votes open for hours so that support could be coerced from the membership -- these were the hallmarks of the congress that Bill Frist, Tom DeLay, and his successors led. Now that there are Democratic majorities in both houses, Bush wants to solve "the complex problems that many don't expect us to tackle, let alone solve, in the partisan environment of today's Washington." The call for bipartisanship seemed little more than a warning that the Bush propaganda machine will smear blame for administration blunders on both sides of the aisle.

The administration signaled its true view of bipartisanship on November 15 when officials announced that Bush would renominate to the federal appeals court six candidates, four of whom have been opposed consistently by Democrats. "Democrats have asked the president to be bipartisan, but this is a clear slap in the face at our request," Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, and a member of the Judiciary Committee, told the New York times. "For the sake of the country, we hope that this is an aberration because the president feels he must placate his hard-right base rather than an indication of things to come."

Similarly, Bush's warning in his op-ed piece that "bills that are simply political statements" would lead to "stalemate" -- presumably a veiled veto threat -- was steeped in irony, given the legislative achievements of the 109th Congress. A notable example is the so-called "Terry Schiavo" bill that granted federal courts jurisdiction in a suit her parents had initiated. As Slate's William Saletan reported at the time of the bill's passage, Republican strategists told senators that the Schiavo case was "'a great political issue' that could excite 'the pro-life base' and hurt Democrats." The measure "passed" the Senate by a vote of 3-0, with 97 of the 100 senators not present; it also passed the House, with 174 representatives not present. Federal courts refused to order forced feeding of Schiavo, who was in a "persistent vegetative state," and the Supreme Court refused to consider the case.

A constitutional amendment to outlaw flag burning, was narrowly defeated in the Senate, failing to gain the two-thirds majority needed to send it to the states for ratification. "Behind the ... rhetoric were cold political considerations," wrote the Washington Post's Charles Babbington at the time. "Republicans are eager to energize conservative voters this fall, and the flag initiative -- even if doomed to fail -- is seen as a sure-fire way to inspire them, especially a week before Independence Day."

Dismissing concerns from some fellow Republicans that the political benefits of the measure were unclear, and that it could hurt Republicans running in the Northeast and West, Senate majority leader Bill Frist succumbed to pressure from social conservative groups in forcing a vote on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. The amendment was rejected by the Senate when a motion to close debate failed to gain the required two-thirds majority.

"New Strategy"

The calls for bipartisanship, and the warnings about politically targeted legislation rang hollow, but the discussions of terrorism and the war in Iraq were the most disturbing. Once again Bush rhetorically linked the terrorist attacks with the war in Iraq -- a connection that he himself admitted did not exist, but which is a key component his administration's desperate efforts to present itself as a champion of national security.

Despite the talk of depoliticizing the business of government, "Many of Mr. Bush's advisers say their timetable for completing an Iraq review was based in part on a judgment that for Mr. Bush to have voiced doubts about his strategy before the midterm elections in November would have been politically catastrophic," according to the NY Times.

Given the administration's penchant for taking actions contrary to their rhetoric, one could assume that Bush's promise of a "new strategy" virtually guaranteed that he would find a way to "stay the course." On Wednesday, January 10, 2007, Bush announced plans to add as many as 20,000 US combat troops in Iraq, institute a jobs program for Iraqis that could cost up to $1 billion, and to require the Iraqi government to meet a series of "benchmarks."

Adding 20,000 troops to the current 125,00 to 130,000 would bring the total to about what it was a year ago, MSNBC analyst Mike Barnicle noted. Jobs programs have been part of reconstruction efforts since the time of the coalition provisional authority; the Commander's Emergency Response Program has employed Iraqis throughout the country for civic cleaning projects, repair of civilian support vehicles, etc. And Bush used the word "benchmark" 13 times in his news conference of October 25, 2006, but last night as in October he did not to clarify any consequences for Iraq if the benchmarks were not met.

Bush's recommendations were similar to what the American Enterprise Institute's Fred Kagan proposed and had been posted on the AEI website. Kagan advocated balancing "our focus on training Iraqi soldiers with a determined effort to secure the Iraqi population and contain the rising violence." He suggested that this can be accomplished with a "surge of seven Army brigades and Marine regiments to support clear-and-hold operations" that Kagan believes will permit economic development and allow the Iraqi military to assume responsibility for long-term security. (A brigade contains between 3,000 and 5,000 soldiers. A Marine regiment contains around 1000 marines. Thus Kagan's "surge" could have required approximately 30,000 servicepeople or more.)

A troop increase is one option that was included in a Pentagon study commissioned by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Peter Pace, and leaked to the Washington Post in late November. The three main options proposed in that study were dubbed "Go Big, Go Long, or Go Home." The Pentagon group preparing the study reportedly considered recommending an increase of several hundred thousand US and Iraqi troops, and Iraqi police, but concluded that there were not enough US troops or combat-ready Iraqi forces for the operation to succeed. The "Go Home" option -- withdrawal of US troops -- was rejected for fear of causing the civil war in Iraq to escalate.

As reported by the Washington Post's Robin Wright, the Pentagon warned that a short term mission would boost all the armed factions in Iraq, while doing nothing to assist the US military or the Iraqi army. The surge "could lead to more attacks by al-Qaeda, provide more targets for Sunni insurgents and fuel the jihadist appeal for more foreign fighters to flock to Iraq to attack U.S. troops," Pentagon officials told Wright.

In November 2005 Gen. John P. Abizaid and Gen. George W. Casey Jr. told the Senate Armed Services Committee that US troop presence was fueling the insurgency, helping lose the "battle for hearts and minds," and that a gradual troop withdrawal was essential. A year later, General Abizaid told the same committee that US troop presence might be the only factor preventing a full-scale civil war in Iraq.

Nonetheless, both Abizaid and Casey have expressed reservations about increasing the number of US combat troops in Iraq. Abizaid said recently that the US military could not sustain an increase of 20,000 for long, and Gen. Casey said he would only support such a boost if it advanced U.S. strategic goals.

On Friday, January 5, the White House announced that Abizaid would be replaced as top U.S. commander in the Middle East, and Casey would be replaced as as top American general in Iraq.

As long ago as August 2006, McClatchy Newspapers reported that US officers and enlisted men in Iraq, as well as members of the Iraqi military, described the situation in Baghdad as as civil war. NBC News, and many analysts, including CNN's Jamie McIntyre and Michael Ware now use the term civil war to characterize the "sectarian violence" in Iraq. It would appear that the generals' analysis a year ago was correct, and by not heeding their advice then, the administration stoked the insurgency to the point that, by many accounts, it has devolved into civil war.

"Father Knows Best" Off the Air

Out of the news, and all but forgotten are the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group (ISG). As the Newsweek headline "Father Knows Best" might have implied, the group's foreign policy orientation tended towards the realism of "Poppy" Bush's administration rather than the neoconservative adventurism that dominates "Junior's" so-called foreign policy.

In the section of the ISG report assessing "Some Alternative Courses in Iraq," the report stated:

Current US policy is not working, as the level of violence in Iraq is rising and the government is not advancing national reconciliation. Making no changes in policy would simply delay the day of reckoning at a high cost. Nearly 100 Americans are dying every month. The United States is spending $2 billion a week. Our ability to respond to to other international crises is constrained. A majority of the American people are soured on the war. This level of expense is not sustainable over an extended period, especially when progress is not being made. The longer the United States remains in Iraq without progress, the more resentment will grow among Iraqis who believe they are subjects of a repressive American occupation. As one US official said to us, " Our leaving would make it worse.... The current approach without modification will not make it better.

Stopping short of using the dreaded "civil war" label, the ISG report nonetheless warned that "sectarian violence -- particularly in and around Baghdad -- has become the principal challenge to stability." It called the Iraqi army's progress toward becoming a disciplined, reliable fighting force "fitful," and declared the police to be in a "substantially worse" state than the army.

The ISG report undercut its findings by blaming the Iraqi government for failing to manage aspects of the situation created by US destruction of Iraqi infrastructure, dismantling of the professional class, and gross mismanagement of postwar reconstruction. "The Iraqi government is not effectively providing its people with basic services: electricity, drinking water, sewage, health care, and education," the report stated.

This is a cynical criticism, given that destruction of infrastructure has regularly been used by US forces as a tactic to suppress resistance to the occupation. As Dahr Jamail and Ali al-Fadhily reported in September 2006, particularly in Anbar province US forces have employed such "collective punishment" for the past two years. Tactics included cutting water and electricity "for days and even weeks...." Jamail and al-Fadhily reported the bulldozing of blocks of buildings in an attempt to prevent attacks on government buildings in Ramadi. Similar techniques have been used in Baghdad, where military bulldozers were use to "level palm groves, cut electricity, destroy a fuel station and block access roads in response to attacks from resistance fighters."

"The U.S. effectively sent a bull in to liberate a china shop, and the Study Group now called upon the U.S. to threaten to remove the bull if the shop doesn't fix the china," military analyst Anthony Cordesman told the Washington Post.

The ISG report briefly acknowledged that "Most of Iraq's technocratic class was pushed out of the government as part of de-Baathification." But it did not discuss the extent to which this program, instituted by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), disrupted Iraqi society. Like the party system in former Soviet Russia, party membership was a virtual pre-requisite to employment in any professional, military, or government capacity. By purging former Baath party members from the government and armed forces, the CPA simultaneously created a large class of trained, unemployed, disaffected workers, and deprived the fledgling Iraqi government and military of personnel with any considerable experience.

The ISG had strong words for US reconstruction efforts, although even these comments are understated. "The coordination of assistance programs by the Defense Department, State Department, United States Agency for International Development, and other agencies has been ineffective," the report states. "There are no clear lines establishing who is in charge of reconstruction.... Substantial reconstruction funds have also been provided to contractors, and the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction has documented numerous instances of waste and abuse. They have not all been put right."

The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) has 92 open fraud investigations, 25 of which have been handed off to the Department of Justice. According to the SIGIR's October 2006 report to Congress, four cases have resulted in convictions and are pending sentence. The SIGIR has seized or recovered more than $11 million, and estimates that its activity has the potential to save or recover more than $400 million.

Like the leaked Pentagon report, the ISG report described having considered "a substantial increase (100,000 to 200,000) in the number of US troops in Iraq." This approach, the report stated, was rejected "because we do not believe that the needed levels are available for a sustained deployment." Adding more troops could also worsen "those aspects of the security problem that are fed by the view that the US presence is intended to be a long term 'occupation.'"

We could, however, support a short-term redeployment or surge of American combat forces to stabilize Baghdad, or to speed up the training and equipping mission, if the US commander in Iraq determines that such steps would be effective.

Appearing on MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Senator Russ Feingold noted that, while the ISG's analysis was realistic, its recommendations were out of synch with the antiwar sentiment that pervaded the recent congressional election.

[T]his commission was composed apparently entirely of people who did not have the judgment to oppose this Iraq war in the first place, and who did not have the judgment to realize it was not a wise move in the fight against terrorism.

So that's who's doing this report. And then I looked at the list of who testified before them. There's virtually no one who opposed the war in the first place, virtually no one who's been really calling for a different strategy that goes for a global approach to the war on terrorism.

So this is really a Washington inside job, and it shows not in the description of what's happened, that's fairly accurate, but it shows in the recommendations. It's been called a classic Washington compromise that does not do the job of extricating us from Iraq in a way that we can deal with the issues in Southeast Asia, in Afghanistan, and in Somalia, which are every bit as important as what is happening in Iraq.

So this report does not do the job, and it's because it was not composed of a real representative group of Americans, who believe what the American people showed in the election, which is that it is time for us to have a timetable to bring the troops out of Iraq.

Two members of the group, commentator Sydney Blumenthal noted, were responsible for Bush becoming president: James A. Baker led the legal maneuvering in Florida that landed Bush's election dispute before the Supreme Court, and Sandra Day O'Connor who cast the deciding vote leading to Bush's ascension.

The ISG recommendations were reported on a schedule dictated by domestic US politics. "We have said from Day One that we were going to report after the midterm election," Baker claimed at a news conference on September 20, 2006. (Actually, as the Washington Post's Dana Milbank noted, Baker had said on March 15, 2006 that the commission did not have a time frame and might issue interim reports, which it did not.)

While the ISG's analysis seemed more connected to the reality on the ground in Iraq than the administration (at least publicly) has seemed to be, the group's recommendations seemed impractical, grandiose, and too late. The Washington Post's Glen Kessler and Thomas Ricks wrote:

... [T]he bipartisan report is nothing less than a repudiation of the Bush administration's diplomatic and military approach to Iraq and to the whole region.

Throughout its pages, the report reflects the foreign policy establishment's disdain for the "neoconservative" policies long espoused by President Bush and his aides. But while many of its recommendations stem from the "realist" school of foreign policy, it is unclear at this point whether a radically different approach would make much difference nearly four years after the invasion of Iraq.

The administration's effort to spread democracy to Arab lands is not mentioned in the report, except to note briefly that most countries in the region are wary of it. The report urges direct talks with Iran and Syria, both of which the administration has largely shunned. It also calls for placing new emphasis on resolving the Israel-Arab conflict, including pressing Israel to reach a peace deal with Syria, on the grounds that the issue shapes regional attitudes about U.S. involvement in Iraq. Overall, it strongly suggests that Bush, Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have bungled diplomacy in the region with unrealistic objectives and narrow strategies.

The call for a regional approach to the problem is a key difference between administration policy and the ISG recommendations. While this approach may have merit, the ISG's formulation is tantamount to saying that in order to solve the problem of Iraq it is necessary to solve all the problems of the Middle East, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As we've noted elsewhere in The Dubya Report, with occasional short-lived exceptions, the Bush administration has declined to engage diplomatically concerning Palestine. It spent hundreds of millions of dollars funding public works projects in attempt to bolster support for Palestinian Mahmoud Abbas, but refused to help him negotiate with the Israelis. It closely monitored changes in the Israeli politics, but ignored growing Palestinian social unrest. It ignored Israeli warnings, and in late 2005 agreed to allow Hamas participation in the Palestinian parliamentary elections, without requiring that the Hamas militias disarm (in contrast to election rules in Afghanistan and Northern Ireland). Apparently realizing Hamas's popularity only belatedly, the administration quietly funneled $2 million through the USAID in support of the Palestinian Authority. Despite the US efforts, Hamas won a landslide victory, which had the effect of further reducing US influence in the conflict. The State Department has labeled Hamas a terrorist organization, hence US aid and diplomatic contact is limited.

The ISG report called for high-level talks with Iran and Syria -- something else the Bush administration has refused to do. Moreover, some analysts have suggested that, even if the administration were to change its policy and initiate such talks, Iran and Syria might have been more open to diplomatic exchanges several years ago. While the report acknowledged that Iran was helpful in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, the opportunity may for constructive engagement may have passed, now that the US appears to be in a position of weakness in Iraq.

Ironically, the ISG's suggestion of rapprochement with Iran and Syria was among the few recommendations that Iraqi President Jalal Talabani supported, and were among the recommendations most strongly rejected by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Rejecting the notion that Syria and Iran should be offered any incentives to cooperate in a regional approach to Iraq, Rice told the , "If they have an interest in a stable Iraq, they will do it anyway."

Doubling Down

George Friedman, of the independent security analysis firm Stratfor, suggested that Bush's limited "surge" is primarily intended to counter the prevailing conventional wisdom that US strategy in Iraq has failed, and that it is only a matter of time before US forces withdraw. "The Iraqis do not see the United States as being a long-term player in Iraq, or as relevant to the current political crisis there," he wrote. If the US can demonstrate that it still has options, and that it can have even highly localized "victories," Friedman suggested, the US may be able to still play a role in shaping the political future of Iraq. Domestically, "If the president can increase the forces in Iraq and not be blocked by the Democrats, then the assumption that the Republicans' political defeat in November cripples Bush's power on the larger stage would be dispelled."

Opposition from the military, which we've noted above, arose because from the military perspective the potential losses outweigh the potential gains.

  • The surge is too little too late. An increase of hundreds of thousands of troops would not guarantee success in counterinsurgency operations.
  • In "Operation Together Forward" the US surged troops into Baghdad. U.S. Army spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell acknowledged on October 19, 2006, that the operation was a failure, and had resulted in an increase in US deaths in Iraq. Urban counterinsurgency operations are difficult, and a similar surge could be expected to have similar results.
  • The administration's idea of a surge does not allow adequate time for the command-and-control structure to be retooled to accommodate the influx of troops nor for new troops to make the transition to an urban counterinsurgency operation. The surge, wrote Friedman would create "endless opportunities for confusion, fratricide and failure."
  • The surge would require longer deployments for Army and Marine units, leading to decreased morale, retention, and effectiveness. "Surging forces in an operation that is unlikely to succeed creates failure throughout the military system," Friedman wrote.
  • There is already "little or no reserve" available in the US military. A surge would exacerbate this situation, and reduce US ability to respond to other crises around the world.

If the military argument wins, Friedman wrote, Iraq will become "a Shiite state under the heavy influence of Iran." If the political argument wins, "the United States will continue with military operations that are unlikely to achieve their desired ends."

Bush, Friedman suggested, is like a compulsive gambler:

Of course, the problem every gambler has when he is losing is the fear that if he leaves the table, he will lose his chance at recouping his losses. Every gambler, when he is down, faces the temptation of taking his dwindling chips and trying to recoup. He figures that it's worth the risk. And it could be. He could get lucky. But more frequently, he compounds his earlier losses by losing the money for his cab ride home.

"I have reached the tentative conclusion that a significant portion of this administration, maybe even including the vice president, believes Iraq is lost," Senator Joseph Biden said in an interview on January 4, 2007. "They have no answer to deal with how badly they have screwed it up. I am not being facetious now. Therefore, the best thing to do is keep it from totally collapsing on your watch and hand it off to the next guy -- literally, not figuratively."

The so-called "new way forward" is, in Biden's view, an attempt to avoid what the Post's Glen Kessler calls a "chaotic withdrawal reminiscent of Vietnam" -- a desperate attempt to ensure that it will be Bush' successor and not Bush who will "be the guy landing helicopters inside the Green Zone, taking people off the roof."


The US Congress Votes Database 2007

Saletan, William "Culture Vultures: Terri Schiavo's persistent legislative state." 21 Mar. 2005

Babington, Charles "Senate Rejects Flag Desecration Amendment" 28 Jun. 2006

Hulse, Carl "Senate Rebuffs Same-Sex Marriage Ban" 8 Jun. 2006

Bush, George W. "What the Congress Can Do for America" Wall Street Journal 3 Jan. 2007

Lewis, Neil A. "Bush to Put Nominations Back on Table" 16 Nov. 2006

Kagan, Frederick W. "Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq"

"NBC label of civil war at odds with White House" Reuters. 27 Nov. 2006

"CNN's Baghdad reporter says Iraq is embroiled in 'civil war,' but rest of network is still hedging" MediaMatters.org. 28 Nov. 2006

Lasseter, Tom "Iraqi civil war has already begun, U.S. troops say" McClatchy Newspapers. 4 Aug. 2006

. Host, Keith Olbermann. MSNBC. 7 Dec. 2006

Brynaert, "Snow battles press over Iraq Study Group report: 'I'm not trying to be snide'" 6 Dec. 2006

Jamail, Dahr and Ali al-Fadhily "US Resorting to 'Collective Punishment' in Iraq" Inter Press Service. 18 Sep. 2006

"Highlights from the October 30, 2006 Quarterly Report to Congress" Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. 30 Oct. 2006

Wilson, Scott and Glenn Kessler"U.S. Funds Enter Fray In Palestinian Elections" 22 Jan. 2006

Kessler, Glenn "U.S. Policy Seen as Big Loser in Palestinian Vote" 28 Jan. 2006

Sanger, David E. et al.Chaos Overran Iraq Plan in '06, Bush Team Says 2 Jan. 2007

Kessler, Glenn "White House Postponing Loss of Iraq, Biden Says" 5 Jan. 2007

Sanger, David E. "Bush Plan for Iraq Requests More Troops and More Jobs" 7 Jan. 2007

Kessler, Glenn and Thomas E. Ricks"The Realists' Repudiation Of Policies for a War, Region" 7 Dec. 2006

Kessler, Glenn and Robin Wright "Rice Rejects Overture To Iran And Syria" 15 Dec. 2006

Trejos, Nancy "U.S. Report Rejected By Iraqi President" 11 Dec. 2006

Wright, Robin and Peter Baker"White House, Joint Chiefs At Odds on Adding Troops" 19 Dec. 2006

"White House Announces Shuffle Of Commanders in Iraq, Mideast" Associated Press. 5 Jan. 2007

"Bush Iraq Plan May Face Trouble With Democrats and Republicans" Associated Press. 6 Jan 2007

Dreazen, Yochi J. and Greg Jaffe "Bush Will Seek Aid, Jobs Funds To Bolster Iraq" 5 Jan. 2007

"Iraq: The Coming Change in U.S. Strategy" Stratfor. 20 Oct. 2006

Friedman, George "The 'Surge Strategy': Political Arguments and Military Realities" Stratfor. 4 Jan. 2007

Raghavan, Sudarsan "Threats Wrapped in Misunderstandings" 7 Dec. 2006

Cole, Juan "Iraq's White Collar Crime" Salon.com. 20 Nov. 2006

Host, Chris Matthews. MSNBC. 10 Jan. 2007

Ricks, Thomas E. "Bush's Proposal of 'Benchmarks' for Iraq Sounds Familiar" 26 Oct. 2006

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