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The Star Tribune (Minnesota)

Bush Still Telling Us Stories About Iraq

Five years ago, as he was preparing to invade Iraq, President Bush told tales of how Saddam Hussein was inches away from nuclear weapons, and how the Iraqi regime had vague but threatening ties with Al-Qaida, and how his strategies were all about responding to 9/11. It was as terrifying as any ghost story, and the fact that his evidence was as insubstantial as any ghost didn't slow its repeated telling around the campfire of prime time.

Four years ago, on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, he told the story of "Mission Accomplished," saying: "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed. And now our coalition is engaged in securing and reconstructing that country."

It was the story of a new, entirely different kind of war, a war in which, "With new tactics and precision weapons, we can achieve military objectives without directing violence against civilians."

It's a story that's gotten harder to tell, and certainly to listen to, as it keeps getting repeated.

Tuesday afternoon, issuing his veto of the emergency war funding bill that included deadlines for cutting back the U.S. presence in Iraq, Bush told his story of how the surge came to be.

This surge, he declared, was the recommendation of military leaders, and any limitations on it from Congress was a matter of politicians trying to take the war over from the professionals. "Members of the House and the Senate," he said sadly, "passed a bill that substitutes the opinions of politicians for the judgment of our military commanders ... .

"That means America's commanders in the middle of a combat zone would have to take fighting directions from politicians 6,000 miles away in Washington, D.C."

Outside the lines of the president's favorite narrative, this war from the beginning -- even more than most American wars -- has been a war designed by politicians with limited interest in military opinion. Generals who suggested that it was all going to be harder and take more time and men than the president's story included were downgraded and ignored.

Because the president and Vice President Dick Cheney and then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld -- three politicians who designed everything about the war -- insisted that it would be a short story, the military was never prepared for the length of the struggle, and lacked the equipment and armor and manpower that would be needed. While Bush now tells a story of military direction, in reality this has been a war of civilian planning and military improvisation.


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"The real tragedy in Iraq," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., "is that it was the politicians in Washington, not the generals, who set our strategy in Iraq."

The military was left to deal with the results.

Now Bush tells the story of a surge generated by the military, a surge that he calls "Gen. [David] Petraeus' plan" and insists "Congress ought to give Gen. Petraeus' plan a chance to work."

And because the president can have his stories told by many tongues, Republican politicians like Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., insisted after Bush's speech, "This isn't the president's plan. This is Gen. Petraeus' plan. This is his plan we're talking about."

Yet the surge plan was devised in Washington, D.C., by civilians, guided not by military necessity but by calculations of how many additional troops could possibly be available. (The Iraq Study Group, whose consideration of a surge on the way to departure is frequently invoked by the administration and congressional Republicans, consisted entirely of civilians.) Petraeus was then brought in to try to make it work.

If Petraeus had suggested that what the plan really needed was 100,000 more troops, it would have been made pretty clear whose plan it was.

Yet Bush, the politician fundamentally responsible for the operation of this war, now weaves a story of military planning to be protected from politicians' interference.

It's one of a series of stories that George W. Bush has told us to make sense of our situation in Iraq.

So far, none has had a happy ending.

David Sarasohn

David Sarasohn is a columnist and managing editor for the Oregonian newspaper in Portland, Oregon.

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