Just Above Sunset
Volume 5, Number 10
March 11, 2007

The Big Speech

 The world as seen from Just Above Sunset -

"Notes on how things seem from out here in Hollywood..."

The New Way Forward, with Six More Brigades, thus 21,500 More Troops

Fifteen brigades there - now add six.  Extend and accelerate.  You know what those two words mean - longer stays in theater for those there, and those getting ready, off to Iraq now, ready or not. The National Guard and Reserve will be stretched.  And there will be multiple rotations for all involved.  It may not be enough, but that's all we have available.

Of course there was more to the president's big "new way forward" speech of Wednesday, January 10 - one of the six brigades will be tasked with being embedded with Iraqi units, to help them out.  Four others go to Baghdad, and the remaining brigade to Anbar.  And we were told the Iraqis promised to throw whole lots of their army in the fray - ten or twelve thousand troops - to fight the militias and such.  And we were told the president got the Iraqi Prime Minister to promise, for real this time, that his army will actually fight the militias, even the Shiite militias that support him and are part of his power base.  No wonder he's been talking of quitting.  And there's the question of the Iraqi police, which are pretty much a group of militias unto themselves.  Nothing was said about fighting them, when it comes down to it. And of course there was this - Troop Surge Already Under Way - as ninety advance troops from 82nd Airborne arrived in Baghdad before the speech. This was a speech on what is happening now. 

No doubt some neoconservatives were disappointed this wasn't bolder - the president did not announce that as he spoke we were taking out Iran's nuclear facilities with our own nukes, and bombing Syria back to the Stone Age at the same time.  It was a "middle ground" speech in that respect. Think of it as "stay the course" on steroids. 

As for using diplomacy - conceding that this may all really be a political problem, not a military one, and best solved by diplomacy - we were told our government has told the Iraqi government to talk with its neighbors, Iran and Syria, and work on that - we're certainly not going to talk to them, but maybe someone should.  And Condoleezza Rice is off to chat with the Sunni governments in the region - the Saudis, Egyptians and Jordanians mainly - to let them know they'd better support us on this escalation to get things under control or the whole region will be a mess and it will be their fault for griping about any of it. If she has time she'll work on the Israeli-Palestine business.

So add more than six billion more dollars in cost - there's more than billion in there for jobs and such - and that's about it. 

The news may be that the president, for the first time, did say things went wrong, and added - "Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me." Well, duh. But he added that "to step back now would force a collapse of the Iraqi government, tear that country apart and result in mass killings on an unimaginable scale." So what are you going to do?

The mistake he mentioned specifically was to have allowed American forces to be restricted by the Iraqi government, which tried to prevent our military operations against the militias controlled by Muqtada al-Sadr, the principle political ally of the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. Nouri al-Maliki told us to back off - but no more of that now. The president implied he'd slapped al-Maliki around and the guy had assured him that from now on "political or sectarian interference will not be tolerated." And he expects the guy to keep his word - "America's commitment is not open-ended. If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people and it will lose the support of the Iraqi people. Now is the time to act." The president was firm, and we're supposed to be impressed.

And there was this - "Our past efforts to secure Baghdad failed for two principal reasons: There were not enough Iraqi and American troops to secure neighborhoods that had been cleared of terrorists and insurgents."  And now there will be.  We will "clear" of course, but this time we'll actually "hold." Well, we won't hold - the Iraqis will - "To establish its authority, the Iraqi government plans to take responsibility for security in all of Iraq's provinces by November."  Hey - obviously, if this doesn't work out just peachy you'll have to blame the damned Iraqis.

Oh yeah, expect lots more American casualties - that comes with the deal here.

It's hard to see much different here - we will go on as we have, but more intensely. And we're asked to trust the president - this will work for sure this time.  (There is no Plan B.)

As for trust, the most prominent critic of the administration in the major media, Keith Olbermann of MSNBC, has a bit to say in the hour before the speech, as you can see here in this video, as you can see here in this video, A Look Backward at the Commander's Credibility -

    Any meaningful assessment of the president's next step in Iraq must consider his steps and missteps so far.

    So, let's look at the record:

    Before Mr. Bush was elected, he said he was no nation-builder; nation-building was wrong for America.

    Now, he says it is vital for America.

    He said he would never put U.S. troops under foreign control. Today, U.S. troops observe Iraqi restrictions.

    He told us about WMDs. Mobile labs. Secret sources. Aluminum tubing. Yellow-cake.

    He has told us the war is necessary… Because Saddam was a threat - Because of 9/11 - Osama bin Laden - al Qaeda - Because of terrorism in general - To liberate Iraq - To spread freedom - To spread democracy - To keep the oil out of the hands of terrorist-controlled states - Because this was a guy who tried to kill his dad.

    In pushing for and prosecuting this war, he passed on chances to get Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Muqtada al-Sadr, Osama bin Laden.

    He sent in fewer troops than recommended. He disbanded the Iraqi Army, and "de-Baathified" the government. He short-changed Iraqi training.

    He did not plan for widespread looting, nor the explosion of sectarian violence.

    He sent in troops without life-saving equipment.

    Gave jobs to foreign contractors, not the Iraqis.

    Staffed U.S. positions there, based on partisanship, not professionalism.

    We learned that "America had prevailed", "Mission Accomplished", the resistance was in its "last throes".

    He has said more troops were not necessary, and more troops are necessary, and that it's up to the generals, and removed some of the generals who said more troops would be necessary.

    He told us of turning points: The fall of Baghdad, the death of Uday and Qusay, the capture of Saddam, a provisional government, the trial of Saddam, a charter, a constitution, an Iraqi government, elections, purple fingers, a new government, the death of Saddam.

    We would be greeted as liberators, with flowers.

    As they stood up–we would stand down, we would stay the course, we were never "stay the course."

    The enemy was al Qaeda, was foreigners, terrorists, Baathists.

    The war would pay for itself, it would cost 1.7 billion dollars, 100 billion, 400 billion, half a trillion dollars.

    And after all of that, today it is his credibility versus that of generals, diplomats, allies, Republicans, Democrats, the Iraq Study Group, past presidents, voters last November, and the majority of the American people.

But he is asking for another chance.  Why be mean about it?

But the big question is why, isn't it? It's not about being mean, but more about the "why do this" question.  The Iraq Study Group might as well have worked on who should win this year's Oscars.

There was the news that the Bush administration has shaped its escalation plan, in part, just to spite the Iraq Study Group -

    Although the president was publicly polite, few of the key Baker-Hamilton recommendations appealed to the administration, which intensified its own deliberations over a new "way forward" in Iraq. How to look distinctive from the study group became a recurring theme.

    As described by participants in the administration review, some staff members on the National Security Council became enamored of the idea of sending more troops to Iraq in part because it was not a key feature of Baker-Hamilton.

A reaction -

    I had to read that a couple of times to make sure I wasn't seeing things. The Bush gang decided to change course in Iraq, but went out of their way to "look distinctive" from the Iraq Study Group? Troop escalation wasn't in the ISG report, so the Bush gang latched onto the idea because the ISG didn't endorse it? As if this all some kind of exercise in Oedipal spite?

    Exactly what kind of men-children are we dealing with here?

Or this -

    [I]f the NSC official is correct, Bush is picking this option out of vanity and spite simply because the Baker Group didn't offer it.

    All in all, it sounds like a promising strategy. After all, if history has taught us nothing else, it's that military strategies with no empirical basis adopted out of pride and vanity are usually phenomenally successful.

Yeah, right. See Dan Froomkin in the Washington Post -

    A relatively minor increase in troops, a promise of greater cooperation from the Iraqi prime minister, a small infusion of reconstruction money -- not only have we heard all this before, but it doesn't amount to much.

    Bush's overall strategy seems likely to remain wholly unchanged: To keep U.S. troops in Iraq as long as it takes for the Iraqi government to start functioning effectively. That means using American bodies and firepower, pretty much indefinitely, to prop up a country racked by civil war and chafing under occupation. That means the American death count ticks on, with no end in sight.

    Bush is not wavering on that fundamental strategy, despite all the indications that it's not working and despite the dramatic loss of public support.

    What the public, the Democrats running Congress, some Republicans and the bipartisan Iraq Study Group have been calling for is an actual change in strategy.

    They don't want American soldiers held hostage to sectarian violence and the Iraqis' inability to form themselves into a peaceful, Western-style democracy. They want the troops to start coming home. Their preferred strategy is to make it clear to the Iraqis that they'll soon be on their own -- and that they have to solve their problems themselves.

    For the White House to call Bush's speech tonight a change in strategy is understandable spin. For journalists, however, there's no excuse.

    Two other quick observations…

    1) It's not just, as The Washington Post points out today, that Bush is breaking with his generals; it's that he seems to me to be channeling Vice President Cheney. Unwilling to change course, Bush has apparently adopted Cheney's overheated arguments that failure would set off a domino effect of geo-political disasters.

    2) The White House simply cannot answer the seminal question: Why should we think things will be different this time?

The triumph of hope over experience?

If you'd like, the Michael Abramowitz, Robin Wright and Thomas Ricks thing about ignoring the generals is here -and Glenn Kessler and Jonathan Weisman write here -

    President Bush gravely warned House Democrats yesterday that America's credibility would be shattered if the United States pulled its troops from Iraq, forcing close ally Saudi Arabia to look elsewhere for protection and potentially destabilizing Egypt, the region's most populous country, according to participants in the meeting.

    … Bush did not say during the half-hour meeting with Democrats where else he thought Saudi Arabia would seek "protection," but he made it clear that he was simply informing Democrats of his decisions on Iraq, not consulting with them. He said that he understands the challenges and thinks his plan has the best chance of success.

As Froomkin says, this is pure Cheney.

Ah, forget the Post - try Defense Tech with 'Surge': What's the Use? -

    Obviously, the giant news of the day is Bush's plan for more troops in Iraq. And I have to say, I'm having trouble getting my arms around the story. Because I can't find anyone - anyone - that thinks this "surge," this "escalation," is a good idea. That believes it will truly deliver a significant impact.

    I know a lot of you guys who hang out here at Defense Tech are committed supporters of the President. Who think he's done a solid job, given extremely difficult circumstances. So let's hear from you: Will adding 20,000 troops really make much of a difference in Iraq? How?

    Don't get me wrong. For more than three years, I've had soldiers complaining to me about the lack of boots on the ground. About how winnable this war might be with more troops. But these guys didn't want a 10 or 15 percent increase in manpower, like the President will call for tonight. They wanted several divisions to join 'em. Enough troops to completely blanket the country - or at least to pull off the classic counterinsurgency move of clearing out neighborhoods of guerrillas, and holding the areas for the good guys.

Clear enough. 

And that item point to other matters.  "The thousands of troops that President Bush is expected to order to Iraq will join the fight largely without the protection of the latest armored vehicles that withstand bomb blasts far better than Humvees," says the Baltimore Sun.

Oh, that - "Vehicles such as the Cougar and the M1117 Armored Security Vehicle have proven ability to save lives, but production started late and relatively small numbers are in use in Iraq, mostly because of money shortages."

Well, we thought this was going to be easier and we'd be out of there.

And there's a pointer to this video - Paul Rieckhoff and Lieutenant General Rick Francona where Rieckhoff says - "This is not like a Hail Mary pass on the part of the president - this is like calling a draw play when you're down big in the fourth quarter." (It's a football thing.)

And there's pro-Bush Joe Katzman with his unanswered questions, like these -

    If capturing terrorists in Iraq continues to result in "catch and release" due to a poorly-functioning and often intimidated Iraqi judicial system, what do you expect to accomplish with more troops? A higher flow-through rate?

    What are the fundamental attitudes on the ground of Sunni and Shi'ite leaders? Are the Sunnis really prepared to deal, or are they still maniacally focused on their loss of dominance in Iraq?

    If you stupidly continue to let Moqtada "death squads" al-Sadr live, what lasting good do 50,000 troops do when you propose to deploy them for a while in Baghdad? US troops have whittled down his forces before - how do the long-term results look now? What happens after US troops leave, if al-Sadr is still breathing?

Maybe the details do matter. And the main item also adds this -

    … two-thirds of the "new" Iraqi troops in Baghdad will be Kurdish pesh merga. That could actually be the move that brings warring Shi'a and Sunni factions together: both groups absolutely, completely hate the pesh's guts.

But we're told it will all work out.

So what are the Democrats to do?

Jacob Weisberg suggests not much -

    Several decades ago, psychologist Martin Seligman developed his theory of "learned helplessness." Subjected to repeated punishment, animals and humans often come to believe they have no control over what happens to them, whether they actually do or not. In Seligman's original experiment, dogs subjected to repeated electrical shocks would prostrate themselves and whine, even when escaping the abuse lay within their power.

    As with canines, so with congressmen. In theory, Democrats now control a co-equal branch of government. In practice, they seem so traumatized by their years of mistreatment at the hands of a contemptuous executive that they continue to cower and simper whenever master waves a stick in their direction.

The whole thing is an amusing read -

    In fact, congressional Democrats have the power to stop the war any day they want. Rejecting additional funding for the war, which 12 senators (including John Kerry) voted to do in 2003, is merely the most dramatic and least politically attractive of their options. Congress can pass a law that says the president cannot send more than a set number of troops to Iraq. It can limit the length of military tours of duty. Or it can enforce a specific deadline for partial or complete withdrawal. A few anti-war types are, in fact, proposing such drastic measures. Sen. Ted Kennedy wants to require the president to ask Congress for the authority to send more troops. Rep. Jack Murtha wants to insist that more "ready" troops be stationed at home. But such voices remain a small, if vocal, minority. Most would rather kvetch.

    Congress learned to be helpless by standing aside as successive presidents asserted that the war power belongs to them alone. As you may recall, that's not what the Constitution says. Article I, which gives the legislative branch the sole power to declare war, also puts it in charge of creating, funding, and regulating the armed forces. But every president since Harry Truman has taken the position that it's unreasonable to have to ask permission from Congress in advance of military action.

Expect little.

    There are plausible arguments for supporting a surge and some very good ones for rejecting a precipitous pullout. But Democrats who argue for "redeployment" and fail to act on their convictions don't have a leg to stand on. Their passivity does harm that goes well beyond the immediate circumstances. By abdicating their constitutional role, they continue to feed the executive Frankenstein Bush and Cheney have created. If they're serious about ending this war, Democrats should quit yelping and bite back.

He doesn't expect that.

Emily Bazelon notes that there really are four ways to stop this all -

    1. Unauthorize the war. Or reauthorize it.

    In October 2002, Congress authorized the use of force in Iraq. It could repeal that resolution and pass another one saying no more war. Or it could reauthorize the use of force on a different and more limited basis. Sen. Robert Byrd argues for reauthorization. The idea is that the reasons we thought we were going to war - Saddam's supposed weapons of mass destruction and alleged operational relationship with al-Qaida - have nothing to do with the current conflict.

    Two questions would follow from a de- or reauthorization of war resolution, as they would from any flexing of congressional war-power muscles. Would the president accept Congress' judgment, and which branch of government would the courts side with if he didn't? If Congress spoke clearly enough to repeal the authorization of force, it's hard to imagine the other branches wouldn't listen, no matter what the president's commander-in-chief powers are. As law professor Neil Kinkopf of Georgia State University writes, "When Congress, acting in the vast areas of overlapping power, tells the President 'no,' the President must comply." Harold Koh, dean of Yale Law School, makes a more aggressive argument about the lack of continuing relevance of the 2002 authorization of force.

    2. Cut off the money.

    This would also be pretty straightforward in constitutional terms. Congress has the power to "raise and support Armies." If Congress votes against spending more on the war in Iraq, the president presumably would have to comply.

    There's a delayed-reaction problem, though. Ending future appropriations doesn't mean taking away current ones. Bush has the funds to get a troop surge under way - he's not asking for more money at the moment. So Congress would be a step behind if it tried to club the troop surge with this blunt weapon. And theoretically at least, it could risk putting soldiers in danger, by blocking the replenishment of spent equipment and ammunition.

    3. Condition the money.

    You want more money, Mr. President? OK, but you have to give us a fuller accounting of how you plan to spend it or a clear strategy for reducing the violence in Iraq. Or - Sen. Kennedy's tough-love version - you can have your money, but not for a troop surge.

    The White House would undoubtedly say that such tying of its hands is an unconstitutional infringement on the president's core power as "commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States." Spokesman Tony Snow said Monday that he's demurring from playing "junior constitutional lawyer" but added, "You know Congress has the power of the purse. The president has the ability to exercise his own authority if he thinks Congress has voted the wrong way." At least some Democrats appear to agree with Snow. Sen. Joe Biden last weekend called it "constitutionally questionable" to "micromanage the war." Biden said Congress "can't go in and, like a tinker toy, play around and say, 'You can't spend the money on this piece and this piece.' "

    A raft of law professors and lawyers disagree with Biden. They see little problem with Congress attaching strings to future appropriations. They believe Congress can tell the president that he can't use torture or nuclear weapons or 20,000 more troops, as long it does so through the funding power. There's some recent precedent for this. In June 1973, Congress stipulated in appropriating funds at the end of the Vietnam War that they could not be used to "support directly or indirectly combat activities." But according to Peter Irons' book War Powers, when Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, a New York Democrat, sued to stop the bombing that continued that summer in Cambodia, the courts ducked. The Supreme Court stayed out of the case, and the Second Circuit invoked the "political question" doctrine, which is how judges usually duck out of policing war-powers fights between the executive and the legislature. Since then, courts have rejected efforts by members of Congress to sue the president for exceeding his war powers, ruling that lawmakers don't have standing to bring such a suit. (Though a soldier might.) So it's possible, at least, that making funding for the war conditional could prove trickier than simply shutting it off. On the other hand, if a bill like Kennedy's passed and then was challenged in court, the judicial-hands-off approach of the political question doctrine would favor Congress.

    4. Set a time limit.

    Congress could pass a law requiring that the president withdraw or redeploy troops according to a set timetable, Georgetown law professor Marty Lederman urges. He invokes the June 1973 law, which gave Nixon an Aug. 15 deadline for ending the fighting in Cambodia and Vietnam by saying no money could be spent on combat after that date. Nixon vetoed an early version of the bill, but in the end he got out on time. This wasn't exactly an act of great congressional self-assertion since it came at the tail end of the war. But it was something, and perhaps the current Congress could impose time limits at an earlier moment, when it mattered more.

None of any of this is likely. The key is the statement from Tony Snow - "The president has the ability to exercise his own authority if he thinks Congress has voted the wrong way."  Times have changed.

This is a done deal. The president has just pushed all of his remaining "soldier chips" to the middle of the table. He made his bet. So be it.


Early comments on the speech were clear.

Andrew Sullivan (emphases added) - 

    The premise of the speech, and of the strategy, is that there is a national democratic government in Baghdad, defending itself against Jihadist attacks. The task, in the president's mind, is therefore to send more troops to defend such a government. But the reality facing us each day is a starkly different one from the scenario assumed by the president. The government of which Bush speaks, to put it bluntly, does not exist. The reality illumined by the lynching of Saddam is that the Maliki government is a front for Shiite factions and dependent for its future on Shiite death squads. U.S. support for the government is not, therefore, a defense of democracy in a unified country, whatever our intentions. It is putting the lives of American soldiers in defense of the Shiite side in an increasingly brutal civil war.

    What we will discover in the next few months, therefore, is simply whether the entire premise of this strategy is actually true. The president is asking us to find this out one more time. He seems to disbelieve the overwhelming evidence on the ground - that the dynamic has changed beyond recognition. His intellectual rubric - democracy versus terror - has not changed to deal with fast-changing events, or to take account of the sectarian dynamic that his appallingly managed occupation has spawned. And so his strategy is no surprise. It would have made sense in 2004, when so many of us were begging for more troops, only to be dismissed as fair-weather warriors, terror-supporters, or lily-livered wimps. We were right. This president was disastrously wrong - and clung to his disproved strategy in the face of overwhelming evidence, supported by the Republican right regardless, until it simply became impossible to sustain the lie any longer.

    If the president tonight had outlined a serious attempt to grapple with this new situation - a minimum of 50,000 new troops as a game-changer - then I'd eagerly be supporting him. But he hasn't. 21,500 U.S. troops is once again, I fear, just enough troops to lose. The only leverage this president really has left is the looming regional war that withdrawal would bring. Yes, if we leave, the civil war will take off. And if we stay, with this level of troops, the civil war will also take off. One way, we get enmeshed in the brutal civil war in the region. One way, we get to face them another day, and perhaps benefit by setting them against each other, and destabilizing Iran. That's the awful choice this president has brought us to. Under these circumstances, I favor withdrawal, while of course, hoping that a miracle could take place. But make no mistake: a miracle is what this president needs. And a miracle is what we will now have to pray for.

    He will do what he wants, of course. Even if the bulk of his own party balks, along with the Democrats. Even if the casualties mount, and the civil war intensifies. Even if failure becomes more and more entrenched. The logic of his speech is that we can never let go of this disaster, that it is our fate for the rest of our lives, and that his job is merely to pass it on - deadlier than ever - to whichever unlucky sap gets to inherit his office.

    To back this anemic response to the escalating civil war requires us to abandon our empirical sense and the lessons of the past four years. To back it requires us to trust this president as a competent, deft and determined leader. Do you? Can you? At this point? After all we have seen?

Markos Moulitsas Zúniga (Kos) -

    It's all frilly bullshit designed to mask Bush's unilateral push to escalate the war. He's lost key members of his party, and will continue to bleed support in the coming months and years. John McCain (who, incidentally, wasn't mentioned in the speech by Bush) now owns this war. That won't do him any favors in a 2008 general election. This was his idea. The repercussions (and they won't be pretty) will be his to bear. Republicans up for tough reelections will have to tread that dangerous line between party loyalty and political self-preservation. Many, like Lincoln Chafee, Jim Talent, George Allen, Conrad Burns and 20+ House Republicans last November will fail.

    It's military insanity, foisted upon a reluctant Joint Chiefs of Staff and military brass. It's political insanity, as we'll see soon enough from those endangered Republican incumbents. And it's moral insanity, as yet more of our men and women in uniform sent to that hell in the desert in order to attempt to salvage George Bush's pride and bolster John McCain's primary chances.

Kevin Drum -

    There were a number of things worth commenting on in Bush's speech tonight, but I guess the biggest thing that leapt out at me is also the simplest: he really didn't make even a cursory effort to pretend that he was doing anything truly new. There was nothing about new military tactics, just an assertion that more troops would help us clear and hold neighborhoods. There was nothing very serious about reducing sectarian tension, just a laundry list of proposed Iraqi legislation accompanied by some platitudes about Prime Minister Maliki accepting responsibility for his own country. And there was nothing substantial about broader regional initiatives, just the usual pro forma warnings delivered to Iran and Syria.

    It took me a couple of minutes to digest this, but there's nothing even remotely new here at all. Almost to the letter, it's the same stuff we've been trying for the past three years, except with about 10% more troops than before. Does Bush really think the American public is going to find any of this very convincing?

Howard Fineman -

    George W. Bush spoke with all the confidence of a perp in a police lineup. I first interviewed the guy in 1987 and began covering his political rise in 1993, and I have never seen him, in public or private, look less convincing, less sure of himself, less cocky. With his knitted brow and stricken features, he looked, well, scared. Not surprising since what he was doing in the White House library was announcing the escalation of an unpopular war.

And so it goes.  But just who should be, well, scared?

This item posted January 14, 2007

[The Big Speech]

Last updated Saturday, March 10, 2007, 10:30 pm Pacific Time

All text and photos, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 - Alan M. Pavlik