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Petraeus, Westy Birds of Feather

Les Payne

Nine U.S. soldiers died the day Gen. David H. Petraeus addressed Congress about the Iraq war on - of all days - Sept. 11. Trumpeting success for the president's "surge," Petraeus dazzled politicians with his chest ablaze with all the colors of the spectrum.

The general wore ribbons of imperial purples, sforzando reds, wild Irish greens, romantic blues, loud yellows and oranges, rich maroons, sentimental pinks, all the half-tones from ultraviolet to infrared, all the vibrations from the impalpable to the unendurable.

I pilfer verbatim here from H.L. Mencken's 1922 description of an officer's tunic with two rows of ribbons. Petraeus' were stacked nine-deep on the left breast, with a row on the right, some two dozen in all.

These speak to the world of the general's assumed valor, bravery and of the mounting body count in defense of George W. Bush's singular bad judgment on Iraq.

The president sent Petraeus two days ahead to soften up Congress with the splendor of his pendants, gold stripes and stars. Bush spoke to the nation Thursday in his civilian tie and blue suit.

Only 5 percent of Americans trust Bush-Cheney to resolve the Iraq conflict, according to a poll for CBS and The New York Times. The public trust for Congress is four times greater. Ironically, some 68 percent of the public trusts the very military commanders serving at the pleasure and under the orders of the president.

This Petraeus trick was pulled on the American public last week. The other piece of chicanery had Congress agreeing to stage its Iraq hearings on Sept. 11. This linkage lends symbolic credence to Bush's illicit invasion of Iraq as a strike against the al-Qaida terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Each of these tragedies, though perpetrated by evil forces, was executed for quite separate reasons.

In promoting the Iraq war, Petraeus exploited Americans' need to trust army generals. Stars and gaud aside, this credibility eludes even the slickest of politicians when wars go bad.

President Lyndon B. Johnson, the slickest of them all, resorted to sending Gen. William C. Westmoreland with a stay-the-course speech in 1967 to subdue Congress and the public when LBJ got stuck knee-deep in the quagmire of Vietnam.

As a staff officer and Ranger captain at the Military Assistance Command Vietnam headquarters, I was privy to the drafting of Westmoreland's speech in Saigon, though I didn't work on this one. The ghost-writers were particularly proud, I recall, of the call for "resolve" at home, and of such hedging phrases as "I have seen no evidence that ..."

Westmoreland allowed no such hedging in promising victory over the communists' "war of national liberation." He told LBJ, Congress and the American public, "I can assure you here and now, that militarily this [communist] strategy will not succeed in Vietnam."

Westy, as we called him, was as eager to please LBJ as Petraeus is to please Bush. No four-star general arrives at his post by displeasing officers and politicians above him, to say nothing of his commander in chief.

As Bush shifts his eyes toward his post-White House days in Texas, he requires Petraeus to preach the wisdom of maintaining the 30,000 surge until deep into the election-year summer of '08. (Halliburton and other multinationals expect to make billions in Iraq forever.)

In his address to the nation, Bush stuck his tongue out at Congress by envisioning an "enduring" relation with Iraq well beyond his presidency, if not forever.

If Monday's U.S. body count was maintained and extended to the date Bush plans simply to end the surge, some additional 2,700 GIs would die, with 20 times as many Iraqis.

But who in the bloodletting Bush-Cheney administration counts or cares about this senseless loss of life on all sides?

The American people have come to care and care deeply, with two-thirds wanting to end the Iraq conflict. Their polled confidence in Bush's war policy barely clears the margin of error, at 5 percent. Still, Congress can't find its hook.

So the republic remains in the grasp of those in the White House who hijacked it in 2000. God help us.

© 2007 Newsday Inc.

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