No Closer to Success in Iraq

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, April 7, 2008; 2:36 PM

President Bush's chief Iraq standard-bearers, Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, have the grave misfortune of beginning two days of critical testimony before Congress tomorrow with the fiasco of the Iraqi government's offensive in Basra still fresh in our memories -- and with Shiite rockets and mortars still raining on the Green Zone.

All signs are that the two men will attempt to make an essentially impossible argument: They will deny that the offensive was a debacle, while citing it as an example of how gains in Iraq are tenuous. They will, in short, try to use the latest news as evidence that Iraq isn't ready for us to leave.

But the recent violence is more clearly evidence that staying in Iraq isn't getting us any closer to Bush's promise of "success."

When the president announced in January 2007 that he was sending more troops to Iraq -- rather than starting to bring them home -- he argued that escalating the American commitment would ultimately accelerate the U.S. withdrawal by bringing about national reconciliation.

Today, though the White House may try to spin the Basra offensive as the work of an Iraqi government coming into its own, the violence has laid bare the political rivalries and military unreadiness that the surge has been unable to address.

Despite the overwhelming public sentiment in favor of bringing our troops home, an honest assessment of the current situation in Iraq leads to the conclusion that withdrawal on the terms Bush imagines is no closer than it was 15 months ago.

The Coverage

Tina Susman and Ned Parker write in the Los Angeles Times: "When Gen. David H. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker brief Congress this week, they will be hard-pressed to depict Iraq as moving toward stability in the wake of recent violence that sent deaths soaring to their highest level in seven months.

"Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's move against Shiite Muslim militias has revealed the gravity of the country's Shiite rivalries, just as U.S. forces are decreasing their presence.

"The intense combat in southern Iraq that pitted Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army against Iraqi and American forces has largely wound down for the time being, but the enmity that fueled it remains. Fighting between the two sides flared Sunday in Baghdad, leaving as many as 22 dead. . . .

"The Iraqi government's Basra offensive last month and the battles with Sadr's Mahdi Army militia that quickly spread across southern Iraq and into Baghdad show how rivalries between Shiite factions jeopardize the country's stability. The fighting also revealed the wobbly state of the Iraqi security forces and, some critics say, Maliki's propensity for barging into a volatile situation without proper planning."

Sudarsan Raghavan writes in The Washington Post that "Iraq's worst violence in months" threatens "to escalate a conflict among Shiites that could further draw in U.S. troops. . . .

"Sadr's followers view a recent U.S.- and British-backed Iraqi government offensive in the southern port city of Basra as an attempt by their Shiite rivals to weaken Sadr's movement ahead of provincial elections later this year. Iraq's security forces, they say, are tools used against them by their rivals. Clashes erupted across southern Iraq and Baghdad" and "tensions remain high."

Erica Goode and Michael R. Gordon write in the New York Times: "Sharp fighting broke out in the Sadr City district of Baghdad on Sunday as American and Iraqi troops sought to control neighborhoods used by Shiite militias to fire rockets and mortars into the nearby Green Zone.

"But the operation failed to stop the attacks on the heavily fortified zone, headquarters for Iraq's central government and the American Embassy here. By day's end, at least two American soldiers had been killed and 17 wounded in the zone, one of the worst daily tolls for the American military in the most heavily protected part of Baghdad. Altogether, at least three American soldiers were killed and 31 wounded in attacks in Baghdad on Sunday, and at least 20 Iraqis were killed, mostly in Sadr City. . . .

"The Green Zone attacks were, symbolically at least, a sign that forces hostile to the United States are still able to strike at the American nerve center and seat of government power in the capital of Iraq.

"The attacks were sure to feature prominently in the scheduled hearings, giving ammunition to Democratic critics who argue that Iraq is not making progress, as well as Republicans who say it would be foolish to reduce the American troop presence in Iraq quickly."

Bloomberg's Ken Fireman points out that Petraeus last September specfically "assured Congress that Iraqis would be able to end the bloody rivalry between Shiite groups in the oil-rich south by themselves."

Instead, Maliki's offensive required U.S. military support, including air strikes, and still only ground to a bloody standoff. "Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, likely will have to explain why his optimism proved misplaced when he returns to Congress this week to defend his call for a pause in withdrawing troops once soldiers sent for last year's 'surge' of reinforcements are brought home," Fireman writes.

Robin Wright writes in The Washington Post: "A new assessment of U.S. policy in Iraq by the same experts who advised the original Iraq Study Group concludes that political progress is 'so slow, halting and superficial' and political fragmentation 'so pronounced' that the United States is no closer to being able to leave Iraq than it was a year ago.

"The experts were reassembled by the U.S. Institute of Peace, which convened the congressionally mandated Iraq Study Group, a high-level panel that assessed U.S. policy in Iraq and offered recommendations in 2006. The new report predicts that lasting political development could take five to 10 years of 'full, unconditional commitment' to Iraq, but also cautions that future progress may not be worth the 'massive' human and financial costs to the United States. . . .

"The report outlines two options if Washington seeks to reduce its Iraq commitment. The first option would peg U.S. engagement to Iraq's agreement to decentralize power to its provinces, leaving the Baghdad government in charge of national defense and revenue distribution only. If Iraq fails to act, however, Washington should 'cut its losses' and work out a withdrawal schedule; if Iraq complies, the United States should maintain a reduced troop presence to train the army and police.

"'Reductions in troop levels will likely result in some degree of chaos and violence no matter what,' the report warns. 'The decentralized, fragmented political dynamic in Iraq cannot be reversed.' Creation of a strong central government that can take on security is unlikely to happen in the time left for the current expanded U.S. military presence.

"The second option is unconditional redeployment of all U.S. forces in Iraq, possibly beginning in January and completed by 2011. At the same time, however, Washington would build an 'enhanced' military presence in the region and stronger regional alliances, while providing political support for the Baghdad government."

Retired Gen. William Odom testified in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last week: "The surge is prolonging instability, not creating the conditions for unity as the president claims." Bush "has placed the United States astride several civil wars," Odom said.

Petraeus Watch

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post that Bush administration debate over how quickly to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Iraq came to a quick end at Camp Arifjan, an Army base near the Iraqi border in Kuwait, in January: "During an 80-minute session, the president questioned his top commander in Iraq on whether further troop reductions, beyond those planned through July, would compromise security gains. According to officials familiar with the exchange, Petraeus said he wanted to wait until the summer to evaluate conditions -- and Bush made it clear he would support him and take any political heat.

"'My attitude is, if he didn't want to continue the drawdown, that's fine with me,' Bush said before television cameras later, with Petraeus standing by his side. 'I said to the general: "If you want to slow her down, fine; it's up to you." '

"In the waning months of his administration, Bush has hitched his fortunes to those of his bookish four-star general, bypassing several levels of the military chain of command to give Petraeus a privileged voice in White House deliberations over Iraq, according to current and former administration officials and retired officers. . . .

"Bush's reliance on Petraeus has made other military officials uneasy, has rankled congressional Democrats and has created friction that helped spur the departure last month of Adm. William J. 'Fox' Fallon, who, while Petraeus's boss as chief of U.S. Central Command, found his voice eclipsed on Iraq. . . .

"'It is part of Bush's overall management style -- to cede responsibility to a lower level and not look carefully at critical issues himself,' said Kenneth Adelman, a Reagan-era official who has parted company with such longtime friends as Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney over the war. 'Originally on Iraq, it was whatever Rumsfeld wanted. Then it was whatever Jerry Bremer did,' he said, referring to the former Coalition Provisional Authority chief. 'And now it is whatever Petraeus wants.'"

Demetri Sevastopulo writes in the Financial Times: "General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq who hinted months ago that he wanted to halt troop reductions after the 'surge' was unwound this summer, will be under pressure on Tuesday to provide details about the 'pause' when he appears before lawmakers in Congress.

"The length of the pause will determine how many US troops remain in Iraq when the next president takes office. Many experts expect to see more US soldiers in Iraq in January 2009 than two years earlier, when President George W. Bush ordered a surge of 30,000 additional forces.

"Speculation about the length of the pause ranges from several weeks to several months."

And the White House fully realizes how important Petraeus's testimony will be. Carl Hulse writes in the New York Times: "Senior Republican officials have met at the White House to synchronize strategies. . . .

"House Republicans are coordinating with conservative bloggers and will invite conservative radio commentators to broadcast from Washington. Republicans plan to push for new money for troops in Iraq; to highlight statements by Democrats that the troop 'surge,' which ended last fall, has worked; to point out some signs of political reconciliation; and to insist that troops can be removed from Iraq only when military leaders decide it is the proper time.

"'The goal of the effort is not just to reinforce the message delivered by General Petraeus, but to launch a full-fledged assault on the misinformation campaign promoted by Democratic leaders who have lost every time they have tried to legislate defeat for America,' said an internal strategy memo for Republican communications operatives."

Dissenting Views Within the Pentagon

Peter Spiegel and Julian E. Barnes write in the Los Angeles Times: "Inside the Pentagon, a contingent of senior officers -- including members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- has long pushed for a faster drawdown of forces to relieve stress on the Army and to meet needs elsewhere, particularly in Afghanistan.

"Some senior officers have privately complained about Petraeus' direct access to President Bush. . . .

"Late last year, there was even a move among some senior military officers within the Pentagon to reshape Petraeus' role during this month's congressional hearings, relegating his voice to just one of many heard by lawmakers.

"Pentagon officers wanted to emphasize potentially competing views, particularly from Petraeus' immediate superior at the time, Navy Adm. William J. Fallon, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East. Fallon was forced to resign last month over differences with the White House. He has privately advocated a speedier drawdown in Iraq. . . .

"The White House has rejected congressional calls for Fallon to appear. Fallon will remain a Navy admiral for several months, and Democrats would like his views to be more widely known."

Steve Coll writes in the New Yorker about Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Richard A. Cody's testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week: "In normal times, when an active four-star general implies in public that the Army is under such strain that it might flounder if an unexpected war broke out, or might require a draft to muster adequate troop levels, he could expect to provoke concern and comment from, say, the President of the United States. Some time ago, however, George W. Bush absolved himself of responsibility for his Iraq policy and its consequences by turning the war over to General David H. Petraeus. . . .

"To buy time in Iraq, Petraeus has lately argued within the Pentagon that the Army must buck up and accommodate his need for heavy troop deployments, despite the strains they are creating, and he has publicly fostered an unedifying debate about how to most accurately assess failure and success in Iraq, as if such an opaque and intractable civil conflict could be measured scientifically, like monetary supply or atmospheric pressure.

"There is, of course, empirical evidence of declining violence in Iraq, which has coincided with Petraeus's command. The additional troops he requested have certainly been a factor, but not even Petraeus can say how much of one. At best, during the past year he has helped to piece together a stalemate of heavily armed, bloodstained, conspiracy-minded, ambiguously motivated Iraqi militias. Nobody knows how long this gridlock will hold."

Coll concludes that "the Army is running on fumes, but Petraeus and his fellow surge advocates are driving flat out in Iraq, with no destination in sight."

Thom Shanker writes in the New York Times: "Army leaders are expressing increased alarm about the mental health of soldiers who would be sent back to the front again and again under plans that call for troop numbers to be sustained at high levels in Iraq for this year and beyond.

"Among combat troops sent to Iraq for the third or fourth time, more than one in four show signs of anxiety, depression or acute stress, according to an official Army survey of soldiers' mental health."

One result of the Petraeus Pause: "The percentage of troops sent back to Iraq for repeat deployments would have to increase in the months ahead."

Yochi J. Dreazen writes in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) about Lt. Col. Gian Gentile, a history professor at West Point: "He argues that Gen. Petraeus's counterinsurgency tactics are getting too much credit for the improved situation in Iraq. Moreover, he argues, concentrating on such an approach is eroding the military's ability to wage large-scale conventional wars. . . .

"Col. Gentile is giving voice to an idea that previously few in the military dared mention: Perhaps the Petraeus doctrine isn't all it's cracked up to be. That's a big controversy within a military that has embraced counterinsurgency tactics as a path to victory in Iraq. The debate, sparked by a short essay written by Col. Gentile titled ' Misreading the Surge,' has been raging in military circles for months."

Bush to Speak Thursday?

Ed Henry reports for CNN: "President Bush is planning to address the nation Thursday morning about the Iraq war, according to sources in the Bush administration and on Capitol Hill. . . .

"After delivering his speech, Bush is scheduled to head to Texas for a few days of rest at his Crawford ranch."

The Snippy President

Faced with the seminal question about what he tried to spin as a breakthrough agreement on missile defense with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Bush got snippy yesterday. Real snippy.

Here's the exchange, with Reuters reporter Matt Spetalnick, at yesterday's joint press availability:

Q: "Thank you. Mr. President, your joint statement on missile defense is still far short of a deal for Russian support or even acquiescence on this project. Isn't this just a matter of kicking the can down the road, in the twilight of both of your terms, to a new U.S. administration that may or may not even support it?"

Bush's response: "Now, you can cynically say it's kicking the can down the road. I don't appreciate that because this is an important part of my belief that it's necessary to protect ourselves. And I have worked -- reached out to Vladimir Putin. I knew this was of concern to him, and I have used my relationship with him to try to get something in place that causes Russia to be comfortable with it.

"Is it going to happen immediately? No, it's not going to happen immediately. But is this a good opportunity to work together? You bet it is. For the common good. And so I feel comfortable with it, and I think it is -- you know, I happen to believe it is a significant breakthrough, simply because I've been very much involved with this issue and know how far it's come."

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "Bush was visibly agitated by the question and afterward decided not to invite reporters for a roundtable discussion on Air Force One on the flight back to Washington as he has done at the end of other overseas trips. Instead, senior Bush advisers made four trips back to the press cabin to argue the importance of the declaration."

Terence Hunt writes for the Associated Press: "White House officials waged an extraordinary campaign during an 11-hour Air Force One flight to put a positive spin on the outcome of Sunday's summit talks between President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"Four times on the long flight back to Washington from Sochi, Russia, Bush aides trooped back to the press cabin to make the case that the summit had turned out well, particularly on missile defenses.

"It was the heaviest lobbying campaign veteran reporters could recall ever occurring on the president's plane. Press accounts of the summit had been sent to Bush's plane and administration officials thought they were too negative. Clearly, Bush's aides were disappointed.

"Some of the officials' statements were on the record. Some of them were off-the-record -- not to be used -- or on 'deep background' -- not to be attributed to anyone in the administration. Some were on 'background' -- to be attributed to a senior administration official. It was hard keeping track of the conditions."

Some reporters remained unspun, however.

Tom Lasseter writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "President Bush made little, if any, progress with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a hastily arranged summit Sunday, dashing any near-term hopes of mending the strained relations between the two nuclear powers.

"While Bush and Putin were friendly in their last meeting as heads of state, the day ended much as it began. The Russians remain firmly opposed to American efforts to expand NATO into the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine and to deploy a ballistic missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, both former Soviet satellites.

"The conference was capped by the release of a strategic framework, a roadmap of sorts, signed by Putin and Bush. The document was largely a series of previously agreed upon points."

Hunt writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin failed to overcome sharp differences over a U.S. missile defense system, closing their seven-year relationship Sunday still far apart on an issue that has separated them from the beginning.

"'Our fundamental attitude toward the American plan has not changed,' Putin said at a news conference with Bush at his vacation house at this Black Sea resort. 'Obviously we've got a lot of work to do,' Bush said. Despite the impasse, the two leaders agreed that Moscow and Washington would work together closely in the future on missile defense and other difficult issues."

Susan Cornwell and Oleg Shchedrov write for Reuters: "U.S. President George W. Bush and Russia's Vladimir Putin ended their last face-to-face meeting as heads of state on Sunday with warm words for each other but no solution to their row over missile defense.

"With Putin to step down next month and Bush in the twilight of his presidency, both leaders stressed the strong personal rapport which they say has helped keep relations between their countries on an even keel.

"But differences over U.S. plans for a missile defense shield in eastern Europe, which have helped drive diplomatic ties to a post-Cold War low, meant their summit on the Black Sea coast ended with no firm agreements."

Here's the transcript of Hadley's first and second on-the-record briefings.

Torture Memo Watch

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "Thirty pages into a memorandum discussing the legal boundaries of military interrogations in 2003, senior Justice Department lawyer John C. Yoo tackled a question not often asked by American policymakers: Could the president, if he desired, have a prisoner's eyes poked out?

"Or, for that matter, could he have 'scalding water, corrosive acid or caustic substance' thrown on a prisoner? How about slitting an ear, nose or lip, or disabling a tongue or limb? What about biting?

"These assaults are all mentioned in a U.S. law prohibiting maiming, which Yoo parsed as he clarified the legal outer limits of what could be done to terrorism suspects as detained by U.S. authorities. The specific prohibitions, he said, depended on the circumstances or which 'body part the statute specifies.'

"But none of that matters in a time of war, Yoo also said, because federal laws prohibiting assault, maiming and other crimes by military interrogators are trumped by the president's ultimate authority as commander in chief. . . .

"'You have to draw the line,' Yoo said in an Esquire magazine interview posted online this past week. 'What the government is doing is unpleasant. It's the use of violence. I don't disagree with that. But I also think part of the job unfortunately of being a lawyer sometimes is you have to draw those lines. I think I could have written it in a much more -- we could have written it in a much more palatable way, but it would have been vague.'...

"'Having 81 pages of legal analysis with its footnotes and respectable-sounding language makes the reader lose sight of what this is all about,' said Dawn Johnsen, an OLC chief during the Clinton administration who is now a law professor at Indiana University. 'He is saying that poking people's eyes out and pouring acid on them is beyond Congress's ability to limit a president. It is an unconscionable document.'"

Glenn Greenwald blogs for Salon: "Here are the number of times, according to NEXIS, that various topics have been mentioned in the media over the past thirty days: 'Yoo and torture' - 102; 'Mukasey and 9/11' -- 73'; 'Yoo and Fourth Amendment' -- 16; 'Obama and bowling' -- 1,043; 'Obama and Wright' -- More than 3,000 (too many to be counted); 'Obama and patriotism' - 1,607; 'Clinton and Lewinsky' -- 1,079."

Michael Isikoff writes for Newsweek that former Pentagon general counsel William Haynes "remains a key figure in a sweeping Senate probe into allegations of abuses to detainees in Defense Department custody. . . .

"Haynes requested the memo (which was written by the then Justice Department lawyer John Yoo) and he and his boss, the then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, later used it to justify harsh interrogation practices on terror suspects at Guantánamo Bay. The memo's disclosure raises new questions about the role that Haynes and other Bush-administration lawyers played in crafting legal policies that critics say led to abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.

"It's a role that the Senate Armed Services Committee, overseen by Sen. Carl Levin and its ranking Republican member, Sen. John McCain, has been quietly but aggressively scrutinizing during a two-year investigation. Two sources familiar with the probe, who asked not to be identified discussing sensitive matters, say the panel's investigators have grilled a number of key players--including Special Forces operatives and FBI agents--who were never previously questioned. The panel notified the Pentagon in early February that it wanted to question Haynes. Before receiving any response, investigators learned on Feb. 25 that Haynes was leaving for Chevron in San Francisco. 'How often does somebody like that give two weeks' notice and leave town?' said one government source familiar with the sequence of events."

Bush's Democracy Backfire

Joel Brinkley writes in a San Francisco Chronicle op-ed: "Freedom, President Bush likes to say, 'is a gift of the Almighty.' But much of the world now believes America's true view is that democracy should be imposed with the muzzle of a gun."

Brinkley writes that an "impressive phalanx of government-funded organizations charged with promoting democracy around the world" have "discovered to their dismay that Bush's democracy initiative was pulling the rug out from under their feet. Their workers were evicted from some countries, harassed and shut out in others.

"'We've been targeted somehow as advocates of regime change through a militaristic approach,' Kenneth Wallach, president of the National Democratic Institute, told me. In many countries, 'democracy has become a pejorative word.' . . .

"Freedom House, a private nonpartisan group dedicated to democracy promotion, publishes an annual report on democracy around the world. This year's report, just out, says 'the year 2007 was marked by a notable setback for global freedom' that is 'reflected in reversals in one-fifth of the world's countries' including Russia, Kenya, Nigeria, Venezuela and Egypt.

"The report concludes that the 'rationale for push-back policies' in many countries where democracy is in retreat 'is that they are necessary to prevent outside forces, primarily the United States, from meddling in their sovereign affairs.' . . .

"All of this leads to a paradoxical conclusion: For all his devotion to this issue, Bush has poisoned the brand."

Bush's War on the Net

Elizabeth Jensen writes in the New York Times that PBS Frontline's four-and-a-half hour documentary " Bush's War" is a big hit online, "with more than 1.5 million views of all or part of the program, which was streamed in 26 segments."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on Bush and the "R" word; Ann Telnaes on the right track; Steve Sack on the wrong track; Mike Luckovich on Bush's legal enablers.

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