Reassurance Offered - Explaining That Things Will Be Fine
It's all in the sequencing - thing have to happen in the right order, and sometimes they don't.
Associated Press, Tuesday, 24 October - "U.S. officials said Tuesday Iraqi leaders have agreed to develop a timeline by the end of the year for progress in stabilizing Iraq, and Iraqi forces should be able to take full control of security in the country in the next 12 to 18 months with 'some level' of American support."
Our ambassador and General Casey were there, saying this. No Iraqi leaders were present. And the power cut out at an awkward moment. Baghdad is like that these days.
Associated Press, Wednesday, 25 October - "A defiant Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki slammed the top U.S. military and diplomatic representatives in Iraq for saying Iraq needed to set a timetable to curb violence ravaging the country. 'I affirm that this government represents the will of the people, and no one has the right to impose a timetable on it,' al-Maliki said.'"
A presidential press conference, hastily called (the reporters had only an hour's notice) - to say yep, things weren't going well, and he was no dummy, so he "got it." People should get off his back about that. And there was no timeline, really, just benchmarks that would assure victory, which is something else entirely.
With less than two weeks before the elections that could sweep his party from power, he had to say something. The Republican congressmen and senators running to keep their seats had been getting hammered on the war issue, so this was an effort to take the pressure off them. The president had their back. This was going to work out. He said so.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pointed out he was no dummy, and saw what was happening - "The Americans have the right to review their policies, but we do not believe in a timetables." It was all grandstanding and not particularly logical - "the result of elections taking place right now that do not involve us."
It doesn't. The timing of all this sudden enthusiasm for "blueprints" and "adjusting tactics" is no coincidence. And that is not to say Nouri al-Maliki is cynical. He's just realistic - and a bit annoyed.
How annoyed? He's this annoyed -
An angry Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki disavowed a joint U.S.-Iraqi raid in the capital's Sadr City slum Wednesday, and criticized the top U.S. military and diplomatic representatives in Iraq for saying his government needs to set a timetable to curb violence in the country.
… Al-Maliki complained that he was not consulted beforehand about the Sadr City offensive. The raid was conducted by Iraqi special forces backed by U.S. advisers and was aimed at capturing a top militia commander wanted for running a Shiite death squad.
"We will ask for clarification to what has happened," al-Maliki said. "We will review this issue with the Multinational Forces so that it will not be repeated."
The man is in a tough spot. That anti-American cleric, Muqtada's al-Sadr, with his own private army, the Mahdi Army that he tries to control, is the reason Nouri al-Maliki is able to do the little ruling he can actually do. Muqtada's al-Sadr has his back, as does the Supreme Council for the Revolution in Iraq, the SCIRI, which operates the Badr Brigades. Things are a bit tenuous there, of course. The coalitions are complex, and the players not very nice.
Enter one Mouwafak al-Rubaie, the national security adviser, telling Associated Press that it was all a misunderstanding that had been cleared up with General Casey - so everyone saves some face. And when asked about it at the press conference President Bush said this - "We need coordinate with him. That makes sense to me. And there are a lot of operations taking place which means sometimes communications are not as good as they should be. And we'll continue to work very closely with the government to make sure communications are solid."
It's a bit chaotic - in spite of everything the president said at the press conference. Until Wednesday, our guys and the Iraqi forces had pretty much avoided the part pf Baghdad known as Sard City, with its two and a half million Shiites. Named for his late, martyred father, that's Muqtada's al-Sadr's country within a country, so to speak. And he backs the prime minister, so let it be.
But we didn't. We went after one really bad guy, and the Mahdi Army militiamen fought back, and we called in an air strike and cordoned off the place. And we got ten guys - but the unidentified primary target got away. And the prime minister's fragile coalition was in trouble, so he had to protest. It's complicated, and add that we also raided a mosque in Sadr City looking for a missing United States soldier and his kidnappers. We didn't find him - "but three suspects were detained."
None of this is going well. We want to stop the madness, but we cannot undermine the elected prime minister - our only evidence we did what we said we'd do there, build a representative democracy.
But you get this -
Crowds of Shiite men, some carrying pistols and others hoisting giant posters of al-Sadr, swarmed onto the district's streets Wednesday morning, chanting, "America has insulted us."
Throughout the day and into the night, U.S. F-16 jet fighters growled across the Baghdad sky, and at one point the report of tank cannon fire echoed across the city five times in quick succession.
Streets were empty and shops closed, although the district still had electricity from the national power grid.
Well after nightfall, residents said all roads into the slum remained blocked by U.S. and Iraqi forces. U.S. soldiers were searching all cars.
A frustrated motorist waiting at one checkpoint jumped out of his car and called for al-Maliki to resign.
"Where is al-Maliki? It would be more honorable for him to resign. Why is he letting the Americans do this to us," the driver could be heard to scream.
Falah Hassan Shanshal, a lawmaker from al-Sadr's political bloc, said women and children had been killed, although videotape pictures of the bodies from the neighborhood taken at the local morgue showed only male victims.
"If there was an arrest operation, it should have been carried out by the Iraqi authorities, and not like this where air cover is used as if we were in a war zone," Shanshal said in an interview with the government's al-Iraqiya television station.
But it is a war zone, isn't it?
And what of this press conference to make it clear we were changing and adapting and making things better?
Dan Froomkin's summary in the Washington Post will do -
"I know many Americans are not satisfied with the situation in Iraq," Bush said, 13 days before a mid-term election that will in large part be a referendum on the war. "I'm not satisfied either."
"I think I owe an explanation to the American people," he said.
But Bush didn't have much new to say today, other than endorsing yesterday's already largely debunked announcement in Baghdad of a "new plan" that sounds very much like the old plan.
And after an hour of familiar sound bites, the public would be forgiven for feeling it still hasn't gotten that explanation he promised.
Among the things that remain unexplained:
- Why does Bush believe that staying in Iraq will make things better, when the evidence suggests that it keeps making things worse?
- Why does he believe that progress is being made, when the evidence suggests that Iraq is sliding deeper and deeper into civil war?
- Why does he remain confident in Iraq's central government, when the evidence suggests that the center is not holding?
- Why hasn't anyone in his administration been held accountable for all the things that have gone wrong?
The Washington Post's Peter Baker asked that last question, and after initially responding with a strong endorsement of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Bush had this to say:
"The ultimate accountability, Peter, rests with me. That's the ultimate - you're asking about accountability - that's - that's - it rests right here. It's what the 2004 campaign was about. You know, people want to - if people are unhappy about it, look right to the president."
And so they do. Those Republican candidates running for their seats who might have looked forward to "some help here" were no doubt a tad depressed by all this.
There was an incident a few years ago in Paris at a press conference on May 26, 2002, as noted here, where George Bush and Jacques Chirac were answering questions from all sorts of reporters. President Bush got really testy and kind exploded when NBC reporter David Gregory decided to switch to French to ask Chirac a question. And his French wasn't bad. Bush stopped everything and sneered - "The guy memorizes four words and he plays like he's intercontinental!" Well, maybe it was a calculated insult on the part of the reporter. Or maybe Bush was having a bad moment. There are more details here, suggesting David Gregory would probably loss his job - Karl Rove would make a phone call.
Well, David Gregory is still working and more successful than ever, and just as cheeky, with this question at the Wednesday, October 25 news conference -
Mr. President, for several years you have been saying that America will "stay the course" in Iraq. You were committed to the policy. And now you say that no, you're not saying "stay the course," that you're adapting to win, that you're showing flexibility. And as you mention, out of Baghdad we're now hearing about benchmarks and timetables from the Iraqi government, as relayed by American officials, to stop the sectarian violence.
In the past, Democrats and other critics of the war who talked about benchmarks and timetables were labeled as "defeatists," "Defeat- o-crats," or people who wanted to "cut and run."
So why shouldn't the American people conclude that this is nothing from you other than semantic, rhetorical games and all politics two weeks before an election?
Gregory likes being provocative it seems. But he didn't ask the question in French, and the president didn't explode with his Texas bar-fight sarcasm.
The president carefully explained that you really have to distinguish between "mutually agreed-upon benchmarks" and "a fixed timetable for withdrawal." You see, they're quite different. He didn't mention the "mutually agreed-upon" thing had been blown up an hour before the press conference with angry words from Baghdad. After all, that can be worked out, maybe. And no one pointed out he had previously opposed even benchmarks. The follow-up was how he planned to measure success toward the benchmarks - and what he would do if the benchmarks weren't met. He didn't exactly answer that.
But the killer question (in so many ways) was about whether we'd be there forever, and he would not renounce the goal of establishing permanent military bases in Iraq. This sort of thing makes the Iraqi public very angry - not that they matter any more.
And the idea that we'd have our few permanent bases, hang out there, and that the Iraqi security forces could be largely self-sufficient within twelve to eighteen months seemed a bit far-fetched to many people. But that's what is supposed to happen. You have to trust him. And that's hard when you see things like this - "The top American commander in Iraq said Tuesday that he may call for more troops to be sent to Baghdad, possibly by increasing the overall U.S. presence in Iraq, as rising bloodshed pushes Iraqi and American deaths to some of their highest levels of the war."
Michael R. Gordon in the New York Times says this of the "we'll send a few more troops into Baghdad and in a year or a year and half we'll be gone" - "Given the rise in sectarian killings, a Sunni-based insurgency that appears to be as potent as ever and an Iraqi security establishment that continues to have difficulties deploying sufficient numbers of motivated and proficient forces in Baghdad, General Casey's target seems to be an increasingly heroic assumption."
But this is the administration of heroic assumptions, is it not?
And things are different now. There's none of the "stay the course" business. Now we have this distinction between "tactics," which the president is willing to change, and "strategy," which he isn't. And the White House will only talk about "milestones" and "benchmarks" for getting the useless Iraqis to get it together, but there are no "deadlines" or "ultimatums" or penalties if they don't.
Impressed? Over at SLATE John Dickerson isn't -
What's being lost in the semantic game over "stay the course" is the new set of choices that really confront the administration. They are not tactical. They are strategic and they are all painful: partitioning Iraq into semiautonomous regions, changing the Al-Maliki government, asking for diplomatic cooperation from neighboring countries like Syria and Iran, or adding more U.S. troops. If the administration were as flexible as it has been proclaiming recently, it would be talking about these options. It has either refused to consider them or stayed mum. If the White House is doing away with the old slogan, perhaps it should mint a new one: "All options are ugly."
But the press conference seemed to be held to say that it may seem as if all options are ugly, but they're not. You just have to believe in what seems impossible - and you have to be optimistic. Being coldly realistic is wrong. If you don't clap loud enough, Tinkerbelle will die.
One of those coldly realistic folks is Frederick W. Kagan, with this -
The U.S. military destroyed Iraq's government and all institutions able to keep civil order. It designated itself an "occupying force," thereby accepting the responsibility to restore and maintain such order.
… By allowing violence and disorder to spread throughout the country, the Bush administration has broken faith with the Iraqi people and ignored its responsibilities. It has placed U.S. security in jeopardy by creating the preconditions for the sort of terrorist safe haven the president repeatedly warns about and by demonstrating that no ally can rely on America to be there when it counts.
But other than that we're doing fine.
Froomkin in the Post also give us this, regarding the president's chief spokesman, Tony Snow, the White House Press Secretary -
Back on October 16, Snow was asked: "Just the simple question: Are we winning?"
His response: "We're making progress. I don't know. How do you define 'winning'?"
On MSNBC's Hardball, yesterday, Chris Matthews asked the question again:
MATTHEWS: Are we winning the war in Iraq?
MATTHEWS: If this is victory, if this is winning what we're doing now, what would losing look like? I mean that seriously. What would have to happen for the president to decide that he did make a mistake, we can't set up a democracy in Iraq given those factional rivalries in that country, it can't be done?
SNOW: Wait a minute. You're making an assumption that I can't buy into for the simple reason that you have 12 million Iraqis who voted. Furthermore, you've got a unity government that includes Shi'a, Sunni, and Kurds. There was a summit over the weekend in Saudi Arabia that brought together Shi'a and Sunni leaders.
MATTHEWS: But over 3,000 people are getting killed in what is basically sectarian fighting here. How can you call that a winning success story here?
SNOW: Well, wait. You asked me if we're winning.
SNOW: We haven't won, there's a big difference.
MATTHEWS: When do you think we will stop having this national argument over Iraq, that it will be clear that your argument will prevail, when people will say, you know, damn it, I didn't like it, but Bush was right. We could establish a stable democracy in Iraq. When are people going to say? Next year, the year after, three years from now, five years from now? When will people generally say, damn it, he was right? We have a stable democracy. When is that going to come?
SNOW: I don't know, but if somebody had asked that question in 1776, the answer would have been 13 years.
MATTHEWS: But that's a long haul to fight a foreign war, isn't it?
SNOW: I'm not saying we're going to fight a foreign war for 13 years. I was engaging in a debating point.
No wonder folks are a bit unhappy with all this.
But James Baker and his Iraq Study Group will ride in to save the day after the election. Matthews will calm down.
Sidney Blumenthal thinks not -
On Wednesday, Bush held a press conference that can only be interpreted as a preemptive repudiation of Baker. Of course, other motives underlay the press conference as well. It was an effort to repackage Bush's unpopular Iraq policy on the eve of the elections and to demonstrate that he is in charge of circumstances that have careened out of control.
In his remarks, Bush digressed at length to give rote explanations that were elementary, irrelevant or misleading. His supposed admissions of error were attempts at deflecting responsibility. Rather than stating the facts that his Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq had forced the disbanding of the Iraqi army and the civil service (by banning those with Baathist Party membership, which included nearly every bureaucrat), he passively said, "We overestimated the capability of the civil service in Iraq to continue to provide essential services to the Iraqi people." And: "We did not expect the Iraqi army, including the Republican Guard, to melt away in the way that it did in the face of advancing coalition forces."
Sticking to his Karl Rove-inspired script before the elections, Bush said the word "victory" as often as possible and even explained that if he didn't do that, public opinion would falter: "I fully understand that if the people think we don't have a plan for victory, that they're not going to support the effort." Having given "victory" a cynical signature, he brought up the Baker commission, setting terms for his acceptance of its proposals. "My administration will carefully consider any proposal that will help us achieve victory." As far as can be determined, this "victory" consists of yet to be determined "benchmarks" to be negotiated with the Iraqi government, whose prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, hours before Bush's press conference, denounced the idea of benchmarks or "timetables."
When Bush was asked if he supported Baker's suggestion of negotiations with Iran, he knocked it down, putting the onus entirely on the Iranians and making any negotiations dependent on their acceptance of U.S.-European demands not to develop nuclear weapons. Baker's idea is not tied to those conditions. On Syria, Bush reiterated his old position and said, "They know our position, as well." Since they already know it, there is no need for the diplomatic initiative Baker proposes.
While giving the back of his hand to Baker, Bush went out of his way to lavish praise on his secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld. "And I'm satisfied of how he's done all his jobs," said Bush. "He is a smart, tough, capable administrator." Once again, Bush was deciding in favor of Rumsfeld.
On Tuesday, the day before the press conference, Rumsfeld acted as the blunt truth teller. On Sunday, Bush had said, "We've never been 'stay the course.'" But Rumsfeld called reports about any Bush plan to reverse course as "nonsense," adding that "of course" Bush was "not backing away from 'stay the course.'"
Now it's Baker's move.
Baker won't change the man's mind.
The elections should be interesting.
But Bush may be bulletproof, as Tim Noah explains -
Ever since the resignation of Richard Nixon, a very smart man who got caught abusing his executive power, the GOP has deliberately avoided nominating conspicuously intelligent people for president. Gerald Ford was smarter than he looked, but he was unable to dispel his buffoonish image. Ronald Reagan was famously checked out and ill-informed. George H.W. Bush, though clearly smarter than Dubya, is not exactly imposing in the brains department, and he's demonstrated almost as much difficulty as his son in formulating a coherent sentence. And George W. Bush? Let's just say the guy is either mentally lazy, not very bright, or some combination of these two. I've never felt it necessary to refine that diagnosis; the term I favor is "functionally dumb."
Two things must be said about my assertions in the previous paragraph. One is that they are all unmistakably true. The other is that whenever a liberal repeats any one of them out loud, that liberal - and contemporary liberalism generally - come under attack, along with the Democratic party, the New York Times, Harvard, the AFL-CIO, the Council on Foreign Relations, the three major TV networks, and the Sierra Club. If a liberal is deciding whom to hire to answer phones and return papers neatly to a metal filing cabinet, it's considered legitimate for that liberal to formulate a judgment as to the candidates' intelligence. If a liberal is deciding whom to vote for in a presidential election, it is not. Merely to raise the issue is seen as conclusive evidence that one is snobbish and effete, and that the subject of one's skeptical inquiry is an authentic man of the people.
We'll see if that's still true.
Bob Woodward's new book, State of Denial, may have screwed the pooch, or whatever the term is.
From Martin Amis' review in the Times of London, this -
George W. Bush has prevailed in two general elections because, very broadly, male voters feel that he's the kind of guy "you can have a beer with". Whereas in fact George W. Bush is the kind of guy you can't have a beer with, under any circumstances: as they say at AA, he has come to treasure his sobriety. You can have a beer with John Kerry and Al Gore; and you can have a beer with Bush Sr and Bill Clinton (and pretty well all the others, including George Washington). But you can't have a beer with Bush Jr.
… One of the many deranging consequences of September 11 was the reification of American power. Until that date, "US hegemony" was largely a matter of facts and figures, of graphs and pie-charts. Thereafter it became a matter of options and capabilities, of war plans cracked out on the President's desk. We can understand the afflatus, the rush of blood, in the White House: overnight, demonstrably and palpably, a tax-cutting dry drunk from West Texas became the most powerful man in human history. One wonders, nowadays, how it goes with Bush, in his glands and sinews. Post-September 11, he had the body language of the man in the bar who isn't going anywhere till he has had his fistfight. Now he looks washed, rinsed, bleached, his flat smile an awful rictus; that upper lip has lost all its lift.
Students of history are aware that illusion - or, if you prefer psychopathology - plays a part in shaping world events. It is always a heavy call on human fortitude to acknowledge that such a thing is happening before our eyes, in broad daylight and full consciousness. On the opposing side we see illusion in its rawest form: murderous fanaticism. On ours, we see a vertiginous power-rush followed by a vacuum, and then a drift into helplessness and self-hypnosis. That vacuum was itself reified after the fall of Baghdad, when the plunder began and the soldiers stood and watched, and it slowly emerged that there was no policy for the peace. Then came a dual disintegration, like that of the twin towers: the collapse of the authority of the state, and the collapse of the value of human life.
… we get a pretty fair idea of how it all happened. The dynamic was unanimity of belief: the establishment, by ideological filtration, of a yes-man's land. Talented experts with dissenting views were sidelined: "Rumsfeld said that they needed people who were truly committed and who had not written or said things that were not supportive." And so on, system-wide, in an atmosphere of feud and grudge, of tantrums and bollockings.
… Two misleadingly comical anecdotes reveal the abysmal depths of coalition unpreparedness. Having allowed the dispersed Iraqi army to stay dispersed, the American viceroy started building a new one, catchily called the NIC (or New Iraqi Corps). It was pointed out, after a while, that this was the Arabic equivalent of calling it the FUQ. Similarly, when Frank Miller of the National Security Council joined a Humvee patrol in Baghdad (March 2004) he was heartened to see that all the Iraqi children were giving him the thumbs-up sign, unaware that in Iraq the thumb (shorter yet chunkier) does duty for the middle digit.
But it may be that the Bush miscalculation was more chronological than geographical. In his sternly compelling book, The Shia Revival, Vali Nasr suggests that the most momentous consequence of the Iraq adventure is the ignition of the Muslim civil war. Not the one between moderate and extreme Islam, which is already over, but the one between the Sunni and the Shia, which has been marinating for a millennium. We can say, with the facetiousness of despair, that it's just as well to get this out of the way; and let us hope it is merely a Thirty Years' War, and not a Hundred Years' War. After that, we can look forward to a Reformation, followed, in due course, by an Enlightenment. Democracy may then come to the Middle East, with Iraq, in the words of one staffer (a month into the invasion), as the region's "cherished model".
So take the long view. In the broad scope of history, this press conference didn't mean a whole lot. And the sequence of events, and the main player, are both insignificant. We're screwed.