Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Still Looking for a Pony in Iraq

("Ya sure Saddan didn't leave a stockpile of ponies somewhere?")

Assessments of the Petraeus-Crocker testimony range from the depressingly stark to the maddeningly obtuse. Here's a few. We'll start with Howard Kurtz's lede:

Was there anything that happened at the Petraeus hearings that wasn't entirely predictable?

The general said progress had been made in Iraq, but not enough, and refused to estimate when more troops might be able to be withdrawn.

Democrats were generally skeptical.

Republicans were generally supportive.

Everyone praised the troops.

Some protesters were removed from the room.

Retired generals hit the airwaves.

Joe Biden talked for a long time.

CNN and Fox cut away, but went back to the hearings when Hillary Clinton and, later, Barack Obama got to ask questions.

The ball does not seem to have moved.

That's not bad, although I'll note that back in November Kurtz offered a unduly rosy, highly selective view of Iraq.

Next there's the Washington Post Editorial Board's op-ed. Remember that they supported the invasion and have often been cheerleaders for it, even if they've occasionally criticized the Bush administration's incompetence. It's short enough and characteristic enough of their faction I might as well quote it in full:

Iraq Report Redux
The facts there have changed; the debate here, less so.

WHEN GEN. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker last testified before Congress in September, the military results of the U.S. troop surge in Iraq, though significant, were still so preliminary that much of the debate centered on whether they were real. When the two men appeared again yesterday, the reduction of violence had been so great as to be undeniable. Sen. Barack Obama, who predicted that the surge would not slow the bloodshed, was among the Democrats who acknowledged yesterday that it had. Similarly, seven months ago, Gen. Petraeus and Mr. Crocker were hard-pressed to cite any movement by Iraqi leaders toward the political accords the surge was supposed to facilitate; the best Mr. Crocker could do was to say he had seen "seeds of reconciliation." Yesterday he was able to tick off a series of significant steps, including agreement on provincial elections that could transform Iraq's political landscape.

Gen. Petraeus and Mr. Crocker have gotten more confident about calling the surge a success, and rightly so. "It's worth it," said the general. "We have seen a significant degradation of al-Qaeda's presence and its abilities," said the ambassador. "Al-Qaeda is our mortal and strategic enemy. So to the extent that al-Qaeda's capacities have been lessened in Iraq -- and they have been significantly lessened -- I do believe that makes America safer."

What hasn't much changed is the partisan debate over Iraq, which as Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) lamented, remains resistant even to established facts. Republicans tended to follow Sen. John McCain yesterday in arguing that "success is within reach" and that American goals can be achieved "perhaps sooner than many imagine." Democrats, including presidential candidates Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mr. Obama, remain locked within the "this war is lost" prism the party adopted a year ago. Yesterday Ms. Clinton, Mr. Obama and others chose to focus on the costs of the war -- whether Iraq was spending too little of its own money, and whether U.S. resources would be better dedicated to Afghanistan. Those are fair questions, but they are far different from Ms. Clinton's argument last September that accepting that the surge had made progress "would require a willing suspension of disbelief."

What also hasn't changed is the sobering but firm bottom line the two envoys offer -- one that neither party wants to hear. While "progress is real," as Mr. Crocker put it, it is also "fragile" and "reversible," as Gen. Petraeus said. That's why Gen. Petraeus is recommending -- correctly, in our view -- that troop withdrawals be suspended after the five surge brigades are withdrawn and that further reductions be based on conditions in Iraq.

Contrary to Mr. McCain's suggestion, success will require a prolonged commitment, and even then it will not be guaranteed. But the general and the ambassador both argued that such a commitment is justified. Even with all the travails of the past five years, "Iraqis, Americans and the world ultimately will judge us far more on the basis of what will happen than what has happened," said Mr. Crocker. And an early or unconditional withdrawal would, as he noted, invite disaster "with devastating consequences for the region and the world."

As we've covered many times before, any reduction in violence is good. However, as Bush himself said, the point of escalation, or "surge," was to buy time for political reconciliation between warring Iraqi factions. That hasn't happened, and the recent Basra confrontations between Maliki's forces and Sadr's have if anything made things more heated. Petraeus himself has acknowledged that no military plan can achieve that political reconciliation. While there may be political progress in some areas of Iraq, just read over the past few BH and VS posts on Iraq. It's not a pretty picture. "Seeds of reconciliation" aren't enough. Perhaps there will be progress, but it’s been five years, and via the current policy, the hypothetical future positive situation they're pitching remains a slim chance most likely years away. I'd also argue, as has retired General William Odom and many others, that our presence in Iraq is one of the chief causes of strife. Petraeus and Crocker portray Iraq in far rosier terms than is warranted, not that it should it be surprising that they have.

Al Qaeda is simply not the major threat in Iraq, as we covered at greater length in the recent John McCain post. As Joe Biden recently pressed Crocker to admit, Al Qaeda in Pakistan is a far greater threat than Al Qaeda in Iraq, and as DDay points out, this effectively "obliterate[s] every administration argument about Iraq." Digby passes on Dana Goldstein's sage observation that Petraeus and Crocker at times deliberately confused Al Qaeda in Iraq with Bin Laden's Al Qaeda. I'll also link once again Gary Kamiya's piece debunking the latest round of administration bullshit on Iran.

Fred Hiatt and the rest of the WaPo Editorial Board are certainly welcome to their opinion, but they happen to be wrong. They're also being disingenuous, or else are making a severe cognitive error. It's no coincidence that they're using the same argument we've debunked countless times in the Right-Wing Cartoon Watch series. No one's actually saying that no progress has been made in Iraq. The question is whether it's meaningful, significant progress, and more pointedly, whether it's the crucial progress needed. The Bush administration's standards for "progress" are just far too low. Any decrease in violence is certainly good (although the violence remains higher than they acknowledge). However, a decrease in violence was not the ultimate goal of the surge. A decrease in violence is a necessary but not sufficient factor for success, which again would be political reconciliation between warring factions. Saying "the surge" has not worked at all would be false. But trying to claim that because it's worked to some degree it's been a "success" is complete bullshit. Trying to claim that Obama and Clinton are ignoring the "success" of the surge because they're pointing out that Bush's own standards have not been met is also intellectually dishonest bullshit. Let's also not forget that a key factor to the decrease in violence — besides our massive bribing of Sunni militias, that is — was Sadr's decision to initiate a ceasefire. If one thing should be clear after the past two weeks, it's that Sadr has and will continue to determine the "success" of the Bush administration's policies to a far greater degree than they acknowledge or would like.

Mike's Blog Roundup passes on a great piece in The Nation by John Nichols rightly praising Russ Feingold's questions to Petraeus and Crocker. (QuestionGirl has the video of Biden and Feingold's segments here.) As I've said more times than I can remember, the Bush administration and its allies — and that would include Petraeus, Crocker, Fred Hiatt and the gang and Fred Kagan and his ilk — rarely if ever address the true complexities of Iraq or its harsh realties.

It's no surprise that the surge proponents rarely if ever talk about the 4-5 million displaced Iraqis, or the staggering Iraqi body count over the years, or the fact that basic utilities in Iraq overall haven't gotten much better in five years and in some cases have gotten worse. They don't mention that:

* 73 percent [of Iraqis] -- including 95 percent of Sunnis -- oppose the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq.

* 61 percent say the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq is making security worse, rather than better.

* 42 percent think attacks on U.S. forces are acceptable.

* 46 percent think if American forces left, the security situation would be better, compared to 29 percent who say it would be worse.

Even offered a slew of fantasy options -- for instance, that U.S. forces should stay "until security is restored" or "until the Iraqi government is stronger" -- a plurality (38 percent) still said what they want is for U.S. forces to leave immediately.

No assessment of Iraq that does not address these realities, and address them head on without prodding and without dissembling, is truly "serious." Since the surge started, some Iraqis have actually returned to their homes, still others have fled, but it's laughable to say that the humanitarian crisis of those displaced Iraqis has been solved by the surge. And if the surge hasn't solved that, made significant inroads on it, or was never meant to address that problem, then it was never a serious solution in the first place. Read over those Iraq posts, or any good newspaper. Read over any of the number of good books on the Iraq war or catch a few episodes of Frontline to realize what a Charlie Foxtrot this has always been and how deep a hole the Bush administration dug in the first place.

The truth is that "the surge" was always primarily a domestic political strategy to move the goalposts to benefit the Bush administration and those who back their policies here in the United States. It's the social norm in the Beltway to say that surge proponents are serious while its opponents are not (as Glenn Greenwald's documented countless times), but that's merely a sign that stupidity is a social norm in Washington on a vital issue (honestly, on many vital issues). There are many reasons Kagan and his ilk aren't truly "serious," but let's go to that glaring example again — anyone who doesn't talk about the 4-5 million displaced Iraqis, and doesn't do so voluntarily and forthrightly, is not truly serious on Iraq. As I've written before, much of the dynamic we're witnessing is due to vanity. Many war proponents are still insisting they were right, and they're desperate to be vindicated. That vindication depends not only on being right, but on having been right. The success of the Bush-Petraeus-McCain plan is the only way of achieving that, so they will flog it 'til their deaths, whether through disingenuous calculation or sincere cognitive dissonance. Either way, they're still wrong, most of them would do it all again, some of them are trying to do it again with Iran, and people will continue to die and suffer because of their un-evolving, unfailingly disastrous judgment.

This brings me to the more incisive analysis of Dan Froomkin, who yesterday lead off his column with:

No Exit

Well, it's official. Getting out of Iraq is now exclusively the next president's problem.

That's the only serious conclusion that can be drawn from yesterday's Senate testimony by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker. The two standard-bearers for President Bush's war engaged in an absurd tap-dance that nevertheless made it clear that U.S. troops aren't going anywhere anytime soon.


While asserting that "the way forward on reduction should be conditions-based," Petraeus and Crocker were unable or unwilling to say what those conditions might be.

While insisting that the U.S. commitment in Iraq is not open-ended, they described no circumstance in which it would end.

They refused to consider any hypothetical scenarios, except for their own.

They refused to acknowledge that reasonable people might disagree with them.

And, as they demonstrated yesterday and in their testimony last September, no matter what the situation on the ground, they are able to use it as an argument for staying the course.

A few key exchanges tell the story…

As always, Froomkin should be read in full. But here's one section that leapt out at me (emphasis mine):

And here's one with Indiana Democrat Evan Bayh:

Bayh: "And I would just ask you the question, isn't it true that a fair amount of humility is in order in rendering judgments about the way forward in Iraq, that no one can speak with great confidence about what is likely to occur? Is that a fair observation?"

Petraeus: "It is very fair, Senator, and it's why I repeatedly noted that we haven't turned any corners, we haven't seen any lights at the end of the tunnel. The champagne bottle has been pushed to the back of the refrigerator. And the progress, while real, is fragile and is reversible."

Bayh: "In fact, reasonable people can differ about the most effective way forward. Is that not also a fair observation?"

Petraeus: "I don't know whether I would go that far, sir . . . "

Bayh: "General, you would not -- you would not mean to say that anyone who would have a different opinion is, by definition, an unreasonable person?"

Petraeus: "Senator, lots of things in life are arguable. And, certainly, there are lots of different opinions out there. But, again, if you -- I believe that the recommendations that I have made are correct."

It's all highly reminiscent of the argument Bush made in the run-up to the war, when he insisted that Saddam Hussein's unwillingness to disclose his weapons of mass destruction meant that he had them. Then, as now, Bush bent logic to justify what he wanted to do anyway.

This time around, at least, there's a bit of pushback.

There is, but I wish it was much, much stronger. But wow. Petraeus actually asserts that no reasonable person can disagree with him — nor, effectively, with Bush, McCain, Lieberman, and the rest of the gang. That's really astounding.

Meanwhile, as Joe Biden pointed out to Petraeus and Crocker, the Bush administration has no right to make any treaties without Congressional approval, especially not a long-term commitment in Iraq binding the next president. It's a subject Jonathan Schwarz dissects superbly here. Use other terms if you like, but I'd say Petraeus and Crocker demonstrate the same arrogance and assertion of unbridled, unaccountable executive power that so strongly defines the Bush administration. Nor is this an accident.

Many of the dynamics of the Petraeus-Crocker show are familiar. Via an earlier Froomkin column, here's the WaPo's Michael Abramowitz (emphasis mine):

During an 80-minute session, the president questioned his top commander in Iraq on whether further troop reductions, beyond those planned through July, would compromise security gains. According to officials familiar with the exchange, Petraeus said he wanted to wait until the summer to evaluate conditions -- and Bush made it clear he would support him and take any political heat.

"My attitude is, if he didn't want to continue the drawdown, that's fine with me," Bush said before television cameras later, with Petraeus standing by his side. "I said to the general: 'If you want to slow her down, fine; it's up to you.' "

In the waning months of his administration, Bush has hitched his fortunes to those of his bookish four-star general, bypassing several levels of the military chain of command to give Petraeus a privileged voice in White House deliberations over Iraq, according to current and former administration officials and retired officers. . . .

Bush's reliance on Petraeus has made other military officials uneasy, has rankled congressional Democrats and has created friction that helped spur the departure last month of Adm. William J. 'Fox' Fallon, who, while Petraeus's boss as chief of U.S. Central Command, found his voice eclipsed on Iraq. . . .

'It is part of Bush's overall management style -- to cede responsibility to a lower level and not look carefully at critical issues himself,' said Kenneth Adelman, a Reagan-era official who has parted company with such longtime friends as Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney over the war. 'Originally on Iraq, it was whatever Rumsfeld wanted. Then it was whatever Jerry Bremer did,' he said, referring to the former Coalition Provisional Authority chief. 'And now it is whatever Petraeus wants.'

Robert Scheer puts it even more sharply, as Froomkin noted yesterday:

Robert Scheer, writing in his syndicated opinion column, recalls the controversial " General Betray Us" ads run by Moveon.org last year: "By undercutting the widespread support for getting out of Iraq, Petraeus did indeed betray the American public, siding with an enormously unpopular president who wants to stay the course in Iraq for personal and political reasons that run contrary to genuine national security interests. Once again, the president is passing the buck to the uniformed military to justify continuing a ludicrous imperial adventure, and the good general has dutifully performed."

It's my personal reaction, but it's hard for me to express how much this dismays me. Bush's abdication of responsibility, a hallmark of his entire presidency, strikes me as utterly unconscionable and unforgivable. And Petraeus' loyalty should be to the United States, not to Bush. There are those who will argue it is, but there's a strong case that either it isn't, or Petraeus is just wrong on Iraq and selling an overly optimistic picture — even if one factors in all of his dire warnings and caveats.

I want to close with a very important piece from Jonathan Schwarz called "What No One in America Knows." It's a short post that should read in full, but here's some key points (emphasis in original):

There's something missing from this recent AP story:

Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr threatened Tuesday to lift a seven-month freeze on his Mahdi Army militia if the Iraqi government does not halt attacks on his followers or set a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal.

What's almost unknown in America is that al-Sadr isn't just demanding US withdrawal at the point of a gun. The Iraqis who want us to leave—ie, the great majority—have been trying to make it happen with words and the law for some time. They've followed all the rules of democracy and "won," but...we're still there.

The legal authority for the US presence is the UN mandate. The Iraqi parliament passed a law last summer requiring that they got to approve and set conditions for any extension of the mandate when it expired at the end of 2007…

If the government wants to extend the presence of the multinational forces, it has to come to us in the parliament to convince us first," said the Sunni parliament speaker, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani.

Here's what al-Sadr's parliamentary allies said at the time:

Reached today by phone in Baghdad, Nassar al Rubaie, the head of the Al-Sadr bloc in Iraq's Council of Representatives, said, "This new binding resolution will prevent the government from renewing the U.N. mandate without the parliament's permission. They'll need to come back to us by the end of the year, and we will definitely refuse to extend the U.N. mandate without conditions." Rubaie added: "There will be no such a thing as a blank check for renewing the U.N. mandate anymore, any renewal will be attached to a timetable for a complete withdrawal."

But in December, 2007 when the mandate was about to expire, Maliki (in his role as Bush's mini-me) told the Iraqi parliament "Suck. On. This." and got it extended to the end of 2008 without any vote. Now, despite the fact that the Iraqi constitution gives the parliament authority to approve all treaties (and the US constitution gives the congress authority to approve all treaties) Bush and Maliki are planning to sign an "agreement" approving a permanent US occupation...without the involvement of either country's legislative branch. Moreover, since Maliki is our puppet, this essentially is the administration agreeing with itself…

The Iraqis who want us to leave, but are willing to work for it non-violently, can honestly ask: what else are we supposed to do? There unfortunately doesn't seem to be an answer.

A piece I also found via Schwarz and linked previously, "Five Things You Need to Know to Understand the Latest Violence in Iraq" by Joshua Holland and Raed Jarrar, makes the point that:

…The sectarian-based street-fighting is a symptom of a larger political conflict, one that has been poorly analyzed in the mainstream press. The real source of conflict in Iraq -- and the reason political reconciliation has been so difficult -- is a fundamental disagreement over what the future of Iraq will look like. Loosely defined, it is a clash of Iraqi nationalists -- with Muqtada al-Sadr as their most influential voice -- who desire a unified Iraqi state and public-sector management of the country's vast oil reserves and who forcefully reject foreign influence on Iraq's political process, be it from the United States, Iran or other outside forces.

They also write that Sadr is actually more popular than Maliki with Iraqis, and this is a threat for Maliki in the upcoming elections, which explains his recent Basra push:

It's a relatively straightforward story: Iraq is ablaze today as a result of an attempt to impose Colombian-style democracy on the unstable country: Maliki's goal, shared by the like-minded allies among the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish communities that dominate his administration, and with at least tacit U.S. approval, is to kill off the opposition and then hold a vote.

I can't help but think of America's covert support for a coup (in large part to help British oil interests) in Iran in 1953 to overturn a democratically-elected government we and the British didn't like, and our recent disastrous attempt to do the same in Gaza to overturn a democratically-elected government we didn't like. Maybe (maybe) Sadr is bad for "American interests" (most of all the oil companies), but if he is indeed Iraqis' preferred choice, that certainly makes the situation much different than the Bush administration's depicting, doesn't it? At the very least, there's a much more complex situation in Iraq than what they're selling. And this brings us back to the surge. As I wrote in the McCain post, many experts and most Americans believe the current Bush policy cannot succeed without many more years in Iraq, and most Americans don't see much benefit in trying any longer; they want us out. Meanwhile, since Sadr and the majority of Iraqis (including the Iraqi parliament) want us to leave, resentment over our presence is the biggest threat to American troops and will only grow, there's a very strong case that "progress" cannot possibly be made as long as we're there. We're preventing it.

I don't know about you, but the more I read about Iraq, the more the decision to 'stay the course' there becomes indefensible and withdrawal seems not only to represent mature wisdom, but basic sanity.

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

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