Surge Mentality: White House in Denial

Reading the White House's report, released Thursday, on whether President Bush's January 2007 "surge" of 30,000 troops is working, you'd never know that a real-life, flesh-and-blood war is being waged in Iraq, with hundreds of people maimed and killed every day. You'd never know that May 2007 was the most violent month in that violent war in nearly three years, with 6,039 attacks on US and Iraqi government forces, 1,348 IEDs exploded under their vehicles, 286 "complex ambushes" involving roadside bombs and coordinated teams of attackers, 102 car bombs, 126 American soldiers killed and 652 wounded.

The report doesn't mention that Gen. David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, warned this week that the resistance in Iraq is preparing a Tet-style offensive, like the one launched in January 1968 by the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. The insurgents, Petraeus said, intend to "pull off a variety of sensational attacks and grab the headlines to create a 'mini-Tet.'"

Instead, in bland, bureaucratic language--its title is Initial Benchmark Assessment Report--the White House has substituted spin for substance: "We have carefully examined all the facts and circumstances with respect to each of the 18 benchmarks and asked the following question: As measured from a January 2007 baseline, do we assess that present trend data demonstrates a positive trajectory, which is tracking toward satisfactory accomplishment in the near term?"

The report says some progress is being made on its stated goals; for others, not so much, or none at all. But in reality, none--zero, zilch, nada--have been met. Last January, when the President announced the escalation by adding at least 30,000 US troops to the occupation force, he justified it by declaring that within six months it would show results, stabilizing the Iraqi capital and creating space for political reconciliation, security and economic progress. But things are demonstrably worse: Violence is up, and the Iraqi government is falling apart.

At his news conference Thursday, Bush simply ignored his promise that the surge would take six months to work. Instead, he argued that the surge is just beginning, now that the troops are finally in place. "It takes a while to move our troops, as the experts know," said Bush. "You just can't load them all in one airplane or one big ship and get them into theater. We had to stage the arrival of our troops. And after they arrived in Iraq, it took a while to get them into their missions."

Now that they are in place, is Iraq making progress on amending its divisive, flagrantly biased constitution? No. Is Iraq reintegrating some of the 2 million former Baathists back into government and society? No. Has Iraq enacted an oil law that guarantees a fair division of the country's chief source of wealth? No. Provincial elections? No. Amnesty for armed resistance members? No. Have the militias been disarmed and demobilized? No. What about a justice system, an army and police not controlled by militias? No. And after spending $19 billion to train and equip 350,000 Iraqi security forces, and then tasking US troops in 2007 with a specific mission to bring Iraqi forces into the effort, are the Iraqi forces getting stronger? "There has been a slight reduction in units assessed as capable of independent operations since January 2007," says the report.

All in all, it's a report that will throw more fuel on the fire already burning in Congress. The utter failure of the US effort chronicled in the "interim" report will embolden the antiwar left in the Democratic Party, strengthen the politically convenient, newfound antiwar sentiments among hawkish, center-right Democrats and--most important--force even more Republicans to break with President Bush. It sets the stage for a titanic showdown this fall, starting in September.

Senator Olympia Snowe, the Maine Republican who signaled that she is ready to start voting with the Democrats against the war, was disgusted by the complete failure to show even a glimmer of progress in Iraq, rejecting the White House's plea for patience and its flaccid assertions that at least a little progress is being made toward some of the eighteen goals. "The benchmarks have to be met. That's it," she told the Washington Post. "Enough is enough." Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired Marine colonel and former top aide to Secretary of State Colin Powell, told me there are nearly seventy Republicans in Congress, including more than two dozen US senators, who have either publicly or privately declared that they've broken ranks with President Bush--and the list is growing with every passing day. Those who've gone on record, either in votes, in speeches or in sponsoring bills demanding a radical change in Iraq policy include John Warner (Virginia), Chuck Hagel (Nebraska), Olympia Snowe (Maine), Susan Collins (Maine), Norm Coleman (Minnesota), Lamar Alexander (Tennessee), John Sununu (New Hampshire), Judd Gregg (New Hampshire), Gordon Smith (Oregon), Pete Domenici (New Mexico), George Voinovich (Ohio), Robert Bennett (Utah) and, most surprising, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican minority leader, who despite his criticism of the Iraqi government, expects the caucus to stand behind the President.

With every tick of the clock, the war in Iraq becomes less and less President Bush's war and more and more the Republican Party's war--unless the Republicans are prepared to confront the White House directly. By all accounts, including many conversations I've had, there is a feeling close to panic among many Congressional Republicans that the election in 2008 is shaping up as a referendum on Iraq, pitting a Democratic Party increasingly ready to cast itself as antiwar against a Republican Party fatally tethered to Bush's lost cause.

Will the Republican Party in Congress crack? In the Senate, the cracks are already showing, of course, and they're big--but with caveats. So far, only a handful, if that, of GOP senators is prepared to vote with Democrats to set a timetable for withdrawal with an end date. It's entirely possible that by September, enough Republican senators will join their ranks so that the Democrats can break a filibuster--which requires sixty votes, meaning that ten to twelve Republicans would have to sign on. Getting enough Republicans to break in order to override an almost certain presidential veto, which would require sixty-seven votes, would be very, very hard. Getting them to actually vote to do so--that is, getting at least seventeen Republican senators to vote to override a veto by a Republican President of a true antiwar bill--well, that is a tall order.

In the House, where Republicans are more uniformly right-wing and more responsive to talk-radio rabble-rousers, there are fewer signs of a rebellion. (Only four Republicans joined 219 Democrats Thursday on a vote to redeploy US forces out of Iraq, though the bill passed 223 to 201.) But one of Washington's leading conservative activists says, "When the House cracks, it will crack all at once, from [minority leader John] Boehner all the way down." So far, party discipline is holding. But it's not likely to last through the fall.

Still, President Bush--backed by Vice President Dick Cheney, whose contempt for Congress is only equaled by his fanatical belief in the imperial presidency--might decide to defy Congress, and he could win. Only last January, Cheney, appearing on Fox News, was asked about the possibility that Congress might upend the war. "It won't stop us," he said, confidently. If the President and the Vice President decide to defy Congress and risk a veto showdown, and win, then the war will continue apace through 2009, and the GOP will likely suffer an electoral defeat of historic proportions. That seems to be where things are headed.

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