Saturday, October 28, 2006

Power Failure (The Hidden Rich)

Frank Rich begins his Sunday column, Dying to Save the G.O.P. Congress (fully available to Times Select subscribers) with this week's press conference in Iraq with American ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Gen. George W. Casey. They were pronouncing that success in Iraq was possible with 12 months chock full of benchmarks... only to be cut off by one of Baghdad's daily power failures. Rich then asks:
If Iraq’s leaders had signed on to the 12-month plan of “benchmarks” the Americans advertised, why were those leaders nowhere in sight? We found out one day later, when the prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, mocked the very idea of an America-imposed timetable. “I am positive that this is not the official policy of the American government, but rather a result of the ongoing election campaign,” he said, adding dismissively, “And that does not concern us much.”

Give the Iraqi leader credit for a Borat-like candor that almost every American in this sorry tale lacks. Of course all the White House’s latest jabberwocky about “benchmarks” and “milestones” and “timetables” (never to be confused with those Defeatocrats’ “timelines”) is nothing more than an election-year P.R. strategy, as is the laughable banishment of “stay the course.” There is no new American plan to counter the apocalypse now playing out in Iraq, only new packaging to pacify American voters between now and Nov. 7. And recycled packaging at that: President Bush had last announced that he and Mr. Maliki were developing “benchmarks” to “measure progress” in Iraq back in June.

As Richard Holbrooke, the broker of the Bosnia peace accords, has observed, the only real choice left for the president now is either “escalation or disengagement.” But there are no troops, let alone money or national will, for escalation. Disengagement within a year, however, is favored by 54 percent of Americans and, more important, 71 percent of Iraqis. After Election Day, adults in Washington will step in, bow to the obvious and pull the plug. The current administration strategy — praying for a miracle — is not an option. The current panacea favored by anxious Republican Congressional candidates — firing Donald Rumsfeld — is too little, too late.

The adults in charge of disengagement will include the Bush family consigliere, James Baker, whose bipartisan Iraq Study Group will present its findings after the election, and John Warner, the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, who has promised a re-evaluation of Iraq policy within roughly the same time frame. Democrats will have a role in direct proportion to the clout they gain in the midterms.

[...]

In keeping with the political cynicism that gave birth to this war and has recklessly prolonged it, the only ones being kept in the dark about this inevitable denouement are our fighting men and women. They remain trapped, dying in accelerating numbers in a civil war that is now killing so many Iraqi civilians that Mr. Maliki this month ordered his health ministry to stop releasing any figures.

Our troops are held hostage by the White House’s political imperatives as much as they are by the violence. Desperate to maintain the election-year P.R. ruse that an undefined “victory” is still within reach, Mr. Bush went so far at Wednesday’s press conference as to say that “absolutely, we’re winning” in Iraq. He explained his rationale to George Stephanopoulos last weekend, when he asserted that the number of casualties was the enemy’s definition of success or failure, not his. “I define success or failure as to whether or not the Iraqis will be able to defend themselves,” the president said, and “as to whether the unity government” is making the “difficult decisions necessary to unite the country.”

Unfortunately, the war is a calamity by both of those definitions as well. The American command’s call for a mere 3,000 more Iraqi troops to help defend Baghdad has gone unanswered. As we’ve learned from Operation Together Forward, when Iraqis do stand up, violence goes up. And when American and British troops stand down, murderous sectarian militias, some of them allied with that “unity” government, fill the vacuum, taking over entire cities like Amara and Balad in broad daylight. As for those “difficult decisions” Mr. Bush regards as so essential, the Iraqi government’s policy is cut and run. Mr. Maliki is not cracking down on rampaging militias but running interference for their kingpin, Moktada al-Sadr. Mr. Maliki treats this radical anti-American Shiite cleric, his political ally, with far more deference than he shows the American president.

The ultimate chutzpah is that Mr. Bush, the man who sold us Saddam’s imminent mushroom clouds and “Mission Accomplished,” is trivializing the chaos in Iraq as propaganda. The enemy’s “sophisticated” strategy, he said in last weekend’s radio address, is to distribute “images of violence” to television networks, Web sites and journalists to “demoralize our country.”

This is a morally repugnant argument. The “images of violence” from Iraq are not fake — like, say, the fiction our government manufactured about the friendly-fire death of Pat Tillman or the upbeat news stories the Pentagon spends millions of dollars planting in Iraqi newspapers today. These images of violence are real. Americans really are dying at the fastest pace in at least a year, and Iraqis in the greatest numbers to date. To imply that this carnage is magnified by the news media, whether the American press or Al Jazeera, is to belittle the gravity of the escalated bloodshed and to duck accountability for the mismanagement of the war.


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