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Candide's Notebooks

Bush in His Labyrinth

Pierre Tristam

It's all about perceptions. Mr. Bush knows it. Iraq could be eleven circles of hell wrapped in one and served cold on a bed of baba ghannoush. It wouldn't make a difference as long as Bush could appear before a circle of subservient Washington reporters, say that some benchmarks are being met, and milk the moment for a day's worth of "positive" headlines.

It worked. "Report on Iraq Sees Progress; Bush Rejects Troop Pullout." That's brought to you by the Times, sponsors of the Iraq war to start with five and four years ago. Here's the opening paragraph of the Times' web story: "With the release of a White House report finding some progress on political and security goals in Iraq, President Bush said today that it was premature to be talking now about a withdrawal of American troops." Critics of the report are mentioned in the second paragraph: Bush was basing his radiation glows on eight benchmarks allegedly being met, out of eighteen. But the story quickly reverts to Bush's spin: "The real debate over Iraq is between those who think the fight is lost, or not worth the cost, and those who believe the fight can be won." No, the real debate is between the one person left on the planet, plus (maybe) his dog, who thinks the war is winnable, and those who know that so-called "benchmarks" are gamed to give a lost cause a sheen of cover for the eventual, inevitable surrender. Let's have a look at those eight benchmarks that are, allegedly, being met.

Spoiler alert: You'll be disappointed if you're expecting the kind of benchmarks that make a difference to the average, or even not so average, poor shmuck getting clobbered out of his Baghdadi home, getting decapitated on his way to work for believing in the wrong descendant (of the right prophet, mind you, his despoiled name be praised), getting a one-way ticket to Refugee misery in Syria and Jordan (our good friends the Kuwaitis and Saudis are forbidding their Iraqi "brothers" from crossing the border), or to the average American soldier on his third tour who's trying to figure out who has the biggest back-stabbing dagger: the insurgent around the corner or the president he probably voted for back home.

  • Form a committee to chat about potential amendments to the Iraqi constitution. So a few Iraqis know how to form a committee. Nothing said they actually had to meet and discuss actual amendments, the constitution to which those amendments would be appended being itself no more believable than a World Wrestling Federation fight's script. But they formed a committee. Pour the champagne.
  • Outlining a procedure by which provinces can form semi-autonomous regions like Kurdistan. In other words, a how-to manual that could have been drawn up at the Heritage Foundation or at the offices of the Rendon Group, the administration's propaganda firm. Again, that's a process thing. It involves no accomplishments - no actual creation of semi-autonomous regions, except of course those created by American military units and American mercenary gangs, and god help you if you cross their path.
  • Protect the rights of minority parties in the Iraqi legislature. In other words, make sure their names are stenciled on a couple of office doors and they have comfortable chairs they can call their own. Just don't remind them about their massacred constituents.
  • Provide three Iraqi brigades to support the American build-up in Baghdad. Ah. Showing up in the right clothes is now an accomplishment. Never mind that those "brigades" are parodies of military effectiveness, ridiculed and humiliated even by their American counterparts, let alone useful units that could make a difference in the field. When even American units, beefed up and ready to smash everything in their way, have been incapable of doing more than adding fuel to the fire, how can Iraqi brigades putting in cameos in Baghdadi streets be considered satisfactorily a met benchmark?
  • Establishing supporting political, media, economic, and services committees in support of the Baghdad Security Plan: More committees? This is beginning to sound suspiciously like a Congressional caucus.
  • Making sure that all "outlaws" are pursued. They've declared a war on crime! A war on drugs! A war on porn! Wait, maybe a war on insurgents, too! It's the No Insurgent Left Behind Plan. The "outlaws" (including, presumably, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson) are not only quaking in their boots. They're releasing their Greatest Hits (see adjoining video).
  • Establishing all of the planned joint security "outposts" in Baghdadi neighborhoods, 60 in all (although here the administration lies a little: 30 more are still planned according to the administration's own assessment, so all the planned ones haven't been established). Those could be anything from roving checkpoints to the military equivalent of a post box. Again: showing up seems to be the bottom-line standard.
  • Spending reconstruction money. Now there's a hard one for an administration with its picture in the Thesaurus next to the word "graft." Best of show this week alone: Iraqi "guards," who must have special-forces distinctions from those Iraqi brigades, robbing a bank of $282 million on Wednesday.
  • Reducing the level of sectarian violence. It's remarkable that Bush can say with a straight face that that benchmark falls in the "satisfactory" column. To be fair, four million Iraqis are now refugees, either out of the country of shunted out of their homes, while a few hundred thousand have been killed. That's more than 15 percent of the country's population. The well of live, warm-bodied Iraqis within range of killers' knives and bullets isn't what it used to be. Besides, Bush's satisfaction is one more among his many illusions. As a Guardian editorial points out, "Even his own commander on the ground, General David Petraeus, cautioned against crowing too loudly about the good news - the drop in the number of sectarian killings and high-profile bombings from January to June this year. Rightly so, because the first two weeks of July saw fresh onslaughts, such as the recent attack on a village near Kirkuk which killed more than 130 people."

And that's the good news. So there you have it. Ten other benchmarks are rated either "unsatisfactory" or "too soon to tell" (because, frankly, four and a half years of massacres and failures isn't enough time to judge god's, or Bush's, plan). And Bush comes out sounding like a hero getting the job done in Iraq.

Not much difference between Bush prattling on about his satisfactory benchmarks this week and Bush prattling on to the Iraq Stuidy Group last year-as Bob Woodward just reported in the Post-about a "Churchillian" vision of "victory" in Iraq, only to be flatly contradicted by his CIA director: "Later that morning, around the same conference table, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden painted a starkly different picture for members of the study group. Hayden said 'the inability of the government to govern seems irreversible,' adding that he could not 'point to any milestone or checkpoint where we can turn this thing around,' according to written records of his briefing and the recollections of six participants."

Then again, Michael Hayden, like all those who can't see Bush's vision, can't possibly understand the Bush version of realism, that essentially American (in the Reaganesque sense ofn the term) version of realism, which Octavio Paz, in "The Labyrinth of Solitude," described so well: "American realism, then, is of a very special kind, and American ingenuousness does not exclude dissimulation and even hypocrisy. When hypocrisy is a character trait it also affects one's thinking, because it consists in the negation of all the aspects of reality that one finds disagreeable, irrational or repugnant."

Pierre Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him at or through his personal Web site at .

© 2007 Pierre Tristam

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