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The Lost Year

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, August 24, 2007; 12:32 PM

A new national intelligence estimate concludes that President Bush's troop surge shows no signs of accomplishing its goal of encouraging political reconciliation in Iraq.

An influential Republican senator and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff now favor a troop withdrawal. (Sen. John Warner wants Bush to demonstrate that the commitment in Iraq is not open-ended; Marine Gen. Peter Pace argues that the military simply can't keep this up.)

These and other developments take us back in some ways to December 2006. It was then, in the wake of the November election and the report of the Iraq Study Group, that the debate in Washington finally appeared to be shifting away from how to achieve victory and toward how to cut our losses.

Instead, Bush ignored public sentiment, overruled his military commanders and opted for escalation.

And now it appears that the only thing the surge has bought him is time -- nine months or maybe a year, during which he was able to postpone the inevitable.

What has that year cost America -- and Iraq? For starters, a year in Iraq translates to over 1,000 more dead American soldiers; over $100 billion more in direct appropriations; over 15,000 more dead Iraqi civilians; and countless grievous wounds and shattered families both here and there.

In light of the costs, having bought a year of time may not seem like much of an accomplishment. But if Bush can drag things out another year or so, he can wash his hands of the whole mess and leave it for his successor to deal with.

Froomkin Watch

I'm taking next week off. The column will resume after Labor Day, on Tuesday, Sept. 4.

The New NIE

Warren P. Strobel and Leila Fadel write for McClatchy Newspapers: "A new assessment of Iraq by U.S. intelligence agencies provides little evidence that the American troop 'surge' has accomplished its goals and predicts that the U.S.-backed government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will become 'more precarious' in the months ahead.

"A declassified summary of the report released Thursday said that violence remains high, warns that U.S. alliances with former Sunni Muslim insurgents could undercut the central government and says that political compromises are 'unlikely to emerge' in the next 12 months."

Mark Mazzetti writes in the New York Times: "The assessment, known as a National Intelligence Estimate, casts strong doubts on the viability of the Bush administration strategy in Iraq. It gives a dim prognosis on the likelihood that Iraqi politicians can heal deep sectarian rifts before next spring, when American military commanders have said that a crunch on available troops will require reducing the United States' presence in Iraq.

"But the report also implicitly criticizes proposals offered by Democrats, including several presidential candidates, who have called for a withdrawal of American combat troops from Iraq by next year and for a major shift in the American approach, from manpower-intensive counterinsurgency operations to lower-profile efforts aimed at supporting Iraqi troops and carrying out quick-strike counterterrorism raids.

"Such a shift, the report says, would 'erode security gains achieved thus far' and could return Iraq to a downward spiral of sectarian violence. . . .

"White House officials said that the assessment was evidence that the American troop increase had begun to dampen violence in Iraq, that progress was possible and that a precipitous troop withdrawal would sow chaos.

"Democrats said the report showed that the White House had failed in its effort to use the troop increase to promote political progress in Iraq, and that it was time for the United States to change course."

Walter Pincus writes in The Washington Post: "The report for the first time examined a key part of the current U.S. effort -- the arming of Sunni tribal leaders who have joined in the fight against al-Qaeda in Iraq. It depicted the impact as limited, noting that although Sunni tribal resistance to al-Qaeda fighters has expanded, particularly in al-Anbar province, it 'has not yet translated into broad Sunni Arab support for the Iraqi government or widespread willingness to work with the Shia.'

"The report notes that Shiite leaders are divided on the initiative. Some in Baghdad are concerned that newly armed Sunni tribes 'will ultimately side with armed opponents of the government,' while others have allowed Sunnis against al-Qaeda to join Interior and Defense Ministry forces.

"Although the potential remains for these Sunni tribal groups fighting al-Qaeda to emerge as a basis for a 'bottom-up' political accommodation, that will occur only 'if the Iraqi government accepts and supports them,' the report said.

"If that does not happen, and U.S. forces draw down, the empowered local Sunni tribal groups 'could become strong enough to join together to challenge the national government in some geographic areas,' the senior intelligence official told reporters."

Here's the full text of the report.

The Warner Challenge

One of the great contradictions of Bush's Iraq policy has been his repeated insistence that the U.S. commitment there is not open-ended -- while at the same time refusing to describe a plausible scenario under which it will conclude.

Peter Baker and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post: "Sen. John W. Warner, one of the most influential Republican voices in Congress on national security, called on President Bush yesterday to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq in time for Christmas. . . .

"At his Capitol Hill news conference, Warner, a former Navy secretary and Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, threw Bush's own words back at him by noting that the president has said the U.S. commitment in Iraq must not be 'open-ended.' Warner said it is time for the president to come up with an 'orderly and carefully planned withdrawal,' suggesting that Bush 'send a sharp and clear message' to the Iraqis by announcing a pullout plan by Sept. 15 -- one that would involve at least a symbolic fraction of the 160,000 troops coming home by the holidays. . . .

"The White House politely rejected Warner's advice, saying any decisions would wait until after [Army Gen. David H.] Petraeus's presentation next month."

William Douglas and Renee Schoof write for McClatchy Newspapers: "Warner's statement reflects Republican discontent with Bush's Iraq policy. However, the Virginia Republican made clear that he won't support efforts by congressional Democrats to impose a withdrawal timetable on Bush. Asked if he'd vote for Congress to order a withdrawal if Bush refuses, Warner said that it's Bush's responsibility under the Constitution, not Congress'.

"Democrats had been hoping that Warner would help lead Republicans to break decisively with Bush. His stand Thursday, however, helps to ensure that Bush will prevail over Democrats on the issue, because without substantial Republican support, they lack the votes to override Bush's veto."

The Pentagon Challenge

Julian E. Barnes and Peter Spiegel write in the Los Angeles Times: "The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is expected to advise President Bush to reduce the U.S. force in Iraq next year by almost half, potentially creating a rift with top White House officials and other military commanders over the course of the war.

"Administration and military officials say Marine Gen. Peter Pace is likely to convey concerns by the Joint Chiefs that keeping well in excess of 100,000 troops in Iraq through 2008 will severely strain the military. This assessment could collide with one being prepared by the U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, calling for the U.S. to maintain higher troop levels for 2008 and beyond.

"Petraeus is expected to support a White House view that the absence of widespread political progress in Iraq requires several more months of the U.S. troop buildup before force levels are decreased to their pre-buildup numbers sometime next year.

"Pace's recommendations reflect the views of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who initially expressed private skepticism about the strategy ordered by Bush and directed by Petraeus, before publicly backing it.

"According to administration and military officials, the Joint Chiefs believe it is of crucial strategic importance to reduce the size of the U.S. force in Iraq in order to bolster the military's ability to respond to other threats, a view that is shared by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates."

Barnes and Spiegel also write: "Planning within the White House has shifted in recent weeks to focus on how large a presence can be maintained in Iraq through the end of 2008.

"'If it's going to take time, and if we can't afford to just walk away from this, then . . . we better get ourselves structured for the long haul,' said the senior administration official, explaining the White House position."

Opinion Watch

Talking Points Memo blogger Josh Marshall writes that Bush's "entire legacy as president is bound up in Iraq. Which is another way of saying that his legacy is pretty clearly an irrecoverable shambles. That is why, as the folly of the enterprise becomes more clear, he must continually puff it up into more and more melodramatic and world-historical dimensions. A century long ideological struggle and the like. For the president a one in a thousand shot at some better outcome is well worth it, no matter what the cost. Because at least that's a one in a thousand shot at not ending his presidency with the crushing verdict history now has in store. It's also worth just letting things keep on going as they are forever because . . . something better might turn up. Going double or nothing by expanding the war into Iran might be worth it too for the same reason. For him, how can it get worse?"

Vietnam Redux

Massimo Calabresi writes for Time: "Politically, President Bush has reached the point all gamblers fear: being so far down that higher stakes start to look worth the risk. Public support for his handling of the war in Iraq is already abysmal, with 70% against him and only 25% still in his camp. So perhaps he felt he had very little to lose when Wednesday, in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Kansas City, Mo., he effectively doubled down, arguing not only that America needs to stay in Iraq until a stable democracy can take root, but also implying we should have done the same in Vietnam a generation ago. . . .

"White House aides speaking on background insist Bush, who even made a curious reference to Graham Greene's classic novel of American misguided idealism, The Quiet American, was not trying to 'relitigate the Vietnam war.' 'We understand that people might be surprised by his using that example, but it's for a very specific purpose,' said one White House aide, 'which is what were people saying about what would happen if we left [Vietnam] and what are people saying about what will happen if we leave Iraq? The Vietnam war has been analyzed every which way and that's not what he was trying to do, he was trying to deal with the current debate we're in now, weighing the consequences should America walk away from its commitment in Iraq.'"

Calabresi writes that Bush's old talking points just weren't doing it anymore. "In the end, it is the familiarity -- critics would say the lack of credibility -- of those themes that provide the answer to Bush's risky invocation of Vietnam. He has so often emphasized the disastrous ramifications of failure and the potential glories of victory, they no longer hold the same currency with a war-tired public. So, given how low support for the war is, why not add the specter of Vietnam to the costs of defeat? And why not suggest that victory in Iraq could help expunge the indignity of America's loss in Vietnam?"

Alec MacGillis writes for washingtonpost.com's The Trail that the Republican candidates seeking to replace Bush "have been sounding this theme for weeks, to far less notice."

Vietnam Opinion Watch

Jim Hoagland writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "Desperate presidents resort to desperate rhetoric -- which then calls new attention to their desperation. President Bush joined the club this week by citing the U.S. failure in Vietnam to justify staying on in Iraq.

"Bush's comparison of the two conflicts rivals Richard Nixon's 'I am not a crook' utterance during Watergate and Bill Clinton's 'I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,' in producing unintended consequences of a most damaging kind for a sitting president."

Rosa Brooks writes in her Los Angeles Times column: "For most Americans, the lessons of Vietnam were reasonably clear before we invaded Iraq and have been painfully reinforced by the ongoing disaster there:

"Don't fight needless wars; don't go blundering around in countries where you don't know the language, history or culture; don't underestimate the power of nationalism, ethnicity and religion to bind together -- or tear apart -- people whose interests otherwise seem to diverge or converge; and, most of all, don't imagine that military force can solve fundamentally political problems.

"But the president, who has his own very special set of history books, drew the public's attention to some entirely different lessons from Vietnam. . . .

"To Bush, the tragedy of the Vietnam War is that we didn't let it drag on for another decade or so."

E. J. Dionne Jr. writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "Bush compared Iraq to Vietnam this week, and there is at least one area in which the metaphor is instructive: When we failed to achieve our objectives in Indochina, we kept hoping that a new South Vietnamese government would solve our problems for us. But our repeated interventions in Saigon's politics did not improve the situation -- and arguably made it worse."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "The real lesson of Vietnam for Iraq is clear enough. America lost that war because a succession of changes in South Vietnamese leadership, many of them inspired by Washington, never produced an effective government in Saigon. . . .

"The short-term sequels of American withdrawal from Indochina were brutal, as the immediate sequels of America's withdrawal from Iraq will surely be. But the American people rightly concluded that with no way to win a military victory, there could be no justification for allowing thousands more United States troops to die in Vietnam. Those deaths would not have changed the sequels to the war, just as more American deaths will not change the sequel to the war in Iraq. Once the war in Southeast Asia was over, America's domestic divisions healed, its battered armed forces were rebuilt and the nation was much better positioned to deal with the relentless challenges of global leadership.

"If Mr. Bush, whose decision to inject Vietnam into the debate over Iraq was bizarre, took the time to study the real lessons of Vietnam, he would not be so eager to lead America still deeper into the 21st century quagmire he has created in Iraq. Following his path will not rectify the mistakes of Vietnam, it will simply repeat them."

McConnell Watch

Greg Miller writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The nation's top intelligence official drew sharp criticism from Capitol Hill and government watchdog groups Thursday for disclosing previously classified details about the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program."

Here's the transcript of a remarkable interview Mike McConnell gave to the El Paso Times. (See the "Democracy and Death" section of yesterday's column for more background.)

Eric Lichtblau writes in the New York Times: "Mr. McConnell, who took over as the country's top intelligence official in February, warned that the public discussion generated by the Congressional debate over the wiretapping bill threatened national security because it would alert terrorists to American surveillance methods.

"'Now part of this is a classified world,' he said in the interview. 'The fact we're doing it this way means that some Americans are going to die.' . . .

"Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, said the interview 'was quite striking because he was disclosing more detail than has appeared anywhere in the public domain.'

"'If we're to believe that Americans will die from discussing these things,' Mr. Aftergood said, 'then he is complicit in that. It's an unseemly argument. He's basically saying that democracy is going to kill Americans.'"

Free Speech

The USA Today editorial board lectures Bush on free speech: "It's vital, of course, that the Secret Service protect the president from physical threats when he appears in public. And it's understandable that the White House wants to have the president speak without disruption from people who disagree with him. But it's important that cloistered presidents know that there are people who disagree with them, and there are disorderly conduct laws to deal with protesters who cross the line.

"Dissent is a bedrock of our system. The administration, with its penchant for secrecy and order, never quite gets that and repeatedly tries to draw the line too broadly. . . .

"If you profess to love 'the freedom for people to speak their minds,' . . . you have to assume you're not always going to love what they say. Instead of a lengthy manual on preventing and handling demonstrators, Bush's advance people need a refresher course on a somewhat older manual. It's called the Constitution of the United States."

Cartoon Watch

John Sherffius and Rex Babin on Bush and Vietnam; Mike Luckovich on how Iraq is like Terri Schiavo.

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