Saturday, December 09, 2006

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (The Hidden Rich)

Just escaped from a Christmas pageant at my grandmother's nursing home that was hijacked by a guest musician with a loudly red sequined shirt and a bucket full of countrified Christmas tuneage (sung over backing tracks from his piano-cum-CD player). Oy. That is a vision of the eternal damnation that I face some day (fingers-crossed) far down the line. But I've made my way over to a nearby Dunn Bros. to tap into the Internet tubes for a bit and bring you the latest Frank Rich (which, thankfully, seems to have been uploaded early). The subject the Iraq Study Group, as one would expect from a week devoted to dissecting its meaning. And, as per usual, Rich starts with the media aspect of the massage. (The Sunshine Boys Can’t Save Iraq is fully available to Times Select subscribers.)

The report of the 10 Washington elders was rolled out like a heartwarming Hollywood holiday release. There was a feel-good title, “The Way Forward,” unfortunately chosen as well by Ford Motor to promote its last-ditch plan to stave off bankruptcy. There was a months-long buildup, with titillating sneak previews to whip up anticipation. There was the gala publicity tour on opening day, starting with a President Bush cameo timed for morning television and building to a “Sunshine Boys” curtain call by James Baker and Lee Hamilton on “Larry King Live.

The wizard behind it all was the public relations giant Edelman, which has lately been recruited by Wal-Mart to put down the populist insurgency threatening its bottom line. Edelman’s vice chairman is Michael Deaver, the imagineer extraordinaire of the Reagan presidency, and “The Way Forward” had a nostalgic dash of that old Morning-in-America vibe. In The Washington Post, David Broder gushingly quoted one member of the group, Alan Simpson, musing that “immigration, Social Security and all those other things that have been hung up for so long” might benefit from similar ex-officio bipartisanship. Only in Washington could an unelected panel of retirees pass for public-policy Viagra.

This syndrome begins at the top, with the president, who has cut and run from reality in Iraq for nearly four years. His case is extreme but hardly unique. Take Robert Gates, the next defense secretary, who was hailed as a paragon of realism by Washington last week simply for agreeing with his Senate questioners that we’re “not winning” in Iraq. While that may be a step closer to candor than Mr. Bush’s “absolutely, we’re winning” of late October, it’s hardly the whole truth and nothing but. The actual reality is that we have lost in Iraq.

That’s what Donald Rumsfeld at long last acknowledged, between the lines, as he fled the Pentagon to make way for Mr. Gates. The most revealing passage in his parting memo listing possible options for the war was his suggestion that public expectations for success be downsized so we would “therefore not ‘lose.’ ” By putting the word lose in quotes, Mr. Rumsfeld revealed his hand: the administration must not utter that L word even though lose is exactly what we’ve done. The illusion of not losing must be preserved no matter what the price in blood.

The Iraq Study Group takes a similarly disingenuous tack. Its account of how the country Mr. Bush called a “grave and gathering danger” in September 2002 has devolved into a “grave and deteriorating” catastrophe today is unsparing and accurate. But everyone except the president knew this already, and that patina of realism evaporates once the report moves from diagnosis to prescription.

Its recommendations are bogus because the few that have any teeth are completely unattainable. Of course, it would be fantastic if additional Iraqi troops would stand up en masse after an infusion of new American military advisers. And if reconciliation among the country’s warring ethnicities could be mandated on a tight schedule. And if the Bush White House could be persuaded to persuade Iran and Syria to “influence events” for America’s benefit. It would also be nice if we could all break the bank in Vegas.

The group’s coulda-woulda recommendations are either nonstarters, equivocations (it endorses withdrawal of combat troops by 2008 but is averse to timelines) or contradictions of its own findings of fact. To take just one example: Even if we could wave a magic wand and quickly create thousands more military advisers (and Arabic-speaking ones at that), there’s no reason to believe they could build a crack Iraqi army and police force where all those who came before have failed. As the report points out, the loyalties and capabilities of the existing units are suspect as it is.

By prescribing such placebos, the Iraq Study Group isn’t plotting a way forward but delaying the recognition of our defeat. Its real aim is to enact a charade of progress to pacify the public while Washington waits, no doubt in vain, for Mr. Bush to return to the real world. The tip-off to the cynical game can be found in a single sentence: “We agree with the goal of U.S. policy in Iraq, as stated by the president: ‘an Iraq that can govern itself, sustain itself, and defend itself.’ ” This studious group knows that even that modest goal, a radical devaluation of the administration’s ambition to spread democracy throughout the Middle East, has long been proven a mirage. The Iraqi government’s ability to defend anything is so inoperative that the group’s members visited the country but once, with just one (Chuck Robb) daring to leave the Green Zone. The Bush-Maliki rendezvous 10 days ago was at the Four Seasons hotel in Amman.

The only recommendations that might alter that reality, however evanescently, come not from “The Way Forward” but from its critics on the right who want significantly more troops and no withdrawal timetables whatsoever. But a Pentagon review leaked to The Washington Post three weeks ago estimates that a true counterinsurgency campaign would “require several hundred thousand additional U.S. and Iraqi soldiers as well as heavily armed Iraqi police,” not the 20,000 or so envisioned as a short-term booster shot by John McCain.


But as Chuck Hagel said last week, “The impending disaster in Iraq is unwinding at a rate that we can’t quite calibrate.” It is yet another, even more reckless flight from reality to suppose that the world will stand still while we dally. The Iraq Study Group’s insistence on dragging out its deliberations until after Election Day for the sake of domestic politics mocked and undermined the urgency of its own mission. Meanwhile the violence metastasized. Eleven more of our soldiers were killed on the day the group finally put on its show. The antagonists in Iraq are not about to take a recess while we celebrate Christmas. The mass exodus of Iraqis, some 100,000 per month, was labeled “the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the worldone” by Refugees International last week and might soon rival Darfur’s.


The members of the Iraq Study Group are all good Americans of proven service to their country. But to the extent that their report forestalls reality and promotes pipe dreams of one last chance for success in this fiasco, it will be remembered as just one more delusional milestone in the tragedy of our age.

Now, supposedly, Dear Leader is taking the Iraq Study Group recommendations seriously:
President Bush said today his administration will "seriously consider every recommendation" the Iraq Study Group made in its report this week.

"The group proposed a number of thoughtful recommendations on a way forward for our country in Iraq," Bush said in his weekly radio address.
But as Dan Froomkin noted, with questions from two British journalists the other day during his presser with tony blair (yes, his legacy is now so diminished because of Iraq, he should be lower-cased), how can/should we take him seriously?
In his joint press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush spoke of embarking on a "new course" in Iraq -- even as he effectively rejected all the major recommendations of the scathing bipartisan Iraq Study Group report.

American reporters dutifully but fruitlessly tried to get Bush to explain what he meant. Their colleagues from across the pond took a different tack.

Why, the two Brits asked Bush in slightly different ways, given your track record on Iraq, should we believe you now?

Not surprisingly, Bush failed to provide a persuasive answer.


First off was Nick Robinson of the BBC: "Mr. President, the Iraq Study Group described the situation in Iraq as 'grave and deteriorating'. You said that the increase in attacks is 'unsettling'. That won't convince many people that you're [not] still in denial about how bad things are in Iraq, and question your sincerity about changing course."

Bush's response was at first testy, then jokey, then righteously indignant.

"It's bad in Iraq. Does that help?" Bush snapped. Then he chuckled.


Robinson blogged about Bush's response: "I've just been eyeballed long and hard by George Bush for suggesting he might be in denial re Iraq."

In a later post, he added: "The detail of his response was fascinating. In his answer, he mentioned 9/11, the danger that Iraq would become a safe haven for terrorists (as Afghanistan was), the nuclear threat (presumably he meant Iran), and oil. So it seems that while the president is on the back foot at home on Iraq, he tried to raise all the things that would encourage the American people to support him."

What Bush didn't do, of course, was answer the question he was asked.


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