President Bush told the nation Thursday night that General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker have "concluded that conditions in Iraq are improving, that we are seizing the initiative from the enemy, and that the troop surge is working."
Because of that, Bush added, "our success in meeting these objectives now allows us to begin bringing some of our troops home." He said Baghdad is being saved.
"One year ago, Baghdad was under siege," he said. "Schools were closed, markets were shuttered, and sectarian violence was spiraling out of control. Today . . . many schools and markets are reopening. Citizens are coming forward with vital intelligence. Sectarian killings are down. And ordinary life is beginning to return."
Never mind that 1,099 US soldiers died from September 2006 to August 2007, the highest 12-month total and disproportionately accounting for 29 percent of the 3,780 recorded fatalities since the March 2003 invasion. The lowest number of monthly fatalities in that period was 70 in November, according to Iraq Coalition Casualty Count (icasualties.org/oif/).
As needless as the war has always been, there previously were no more than three straight months of 70 or more US deaths. This month, the United States is on pace to lose another 76 service people.
Never mind either that the government's own National Intelligence Estimate last month was nowhere as rosy as Bush's assessment. The report said "there have been measurable but uneven improvements . . . the level of overall violence, including attacks on and casualties among civilians, remains high; Iraq's sectarian groups remain unreconciled; AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] retains the ability to conduct high-profile attacks."
The report did not use the word "quagmire." But it said that Iraqi security forces "have not improved enough to conduct major operations independent of the Coalition." That means that the US military presence "remains critical."
It remains so critical that Bush proposes to pull back only 20,000 troops, still leaving 140,000 in Iraq, still higher than when his "surge" began. To deflect from this deflating development, Bush once again tied the fear of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to Iraq even though Iraq and the executed Saddam Hussein had no tie to it.
"If we were to be driven out of Iraq," Bush said, "extremists of all strains would be emboldened . . . We would leave our children to face a far more dangerous world. And as we saw on September 11, 2001, those dangers can reach our cities and kill our people."
But in an amazing moment of candor, Petraeus said he could not say whether Bush's war has mattered on this account. When Senator John Warner of Virginia, a member of Bush's own Republican Party, asked Petraeus if the current strategy is making America safer, Petraeus said, "I don't know, actually. I have not sat down and sorted that out in my own mind."
We are 4 1/2 years into this war, and the Bush administration has not sorted out what we have done. Bush, by citing isolated examples of "how our strategy is working" and deluding himself about "the progress I have reported tonight," is no different than when General William Westmoreland told the National Press Club about Vietnam War in 1967, "I am absolutely certain that where as in 1965 the enemy was winning, today he is certainly losing."
Just like Bush, citing the reopening of schools, Westmoreland boasted that the United States "saw a civilian government installed, stabilized prices, opened roads and canals."
Westmoreland's assessment led President Johnson to declare three months later in a press conference, "so far as changing our basic strategy, the answer would be no. We see nothing that would require any change of great consequence. I see nothing in the developments that would indicate that the evaluation that I have had of this situation throughout the month should be changed."
Bush, seeing no need for major changes other than his recent escalation, said Thursday, "Our troops in Iraq are performing brilliantly. Along with Iraqi forces, they have captured or killed an average of more than 1,500 enemy fighters per month since January."
That is no different than Johnson bragging to the media in February of 1968 that 10,000 communist fighters were killed and 2,300 detained in the latest battles, compared to only 249 US fatalities. "I can count," Johnson said. ". . . is that a great enemy victory?"
Johnson won the body count and lost the war. Bush has yet to see that his war is down for the count.
Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is email@example.com.
© 2007 Boston Globe