Monday, September 10, 2007

The political uses of General Petraeus by President Bush

From the New York Times via the International Herald Tribune:
The military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, is to deliver a report to Congress on Monday that could be the most consequential testimony by a wartime commander in more than a generation. What the United States desperately needs is an honest assessment of the war and a clear strategy for extricating American forces from the hopeless spiral of violence in Iraq.

President George W. Bush, however, seems to be aiming for maximum political advantage - not maximum clarity on Iraq's military and political crises, which cannot be separated from each other. Bush, we fear, isn't looking for the truth, only for ways to confound the public, scare Democrats into dropping their demands for a sound exit strategy, and prolong the war until he leaves office. At times, Petraeus gives the disturbing impression that he, too, is more focused on Washington than the unfolding disaster in Iraq. That serves neither U.S. nor Iraqi interests.

Bush is counting on the general to restore credibility to his discredited Iraq policy. He frequently refers to the escalation of American forces last January as Petraeus' strategy - as if it were not his own creation. The situation echoes the way Bush made Colin Powell - another military man with an overly honed sense of a soldier's duty - play frontman at the United Nations in 2003 to make the case that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Bush cannot once again subcontract his responsibility.

This is his war.

Petraeus has his own credibility problems. He overstepped in 2004 when he published an op-ed article in The Washington Post six weeks before the election. The general - then in charge of training and equipping Iraq's security forces - rhapsodized about "tangible progress" and how the Iraqi forces were "developing steadily," an assessment that has long since proved to be untrue.

And just last week, senior military commanders in Baghdad who work for Petraeus entered the political fray by taking issue - anonymously - with the grim assessment of Iraq's politics and security by non-partisan congressional investigators.
As Congress waited anxiously for Petraeus' testimony, a flurry of well-timed news reports said that he told the White House he could go along with the withdrawal of about 4,000 U.S. troops beginning in January but wanted to maintain increased force levels well into next year - just like Bush. Democrats who once demanded a firm date for the start of a troop pullout immediately started backpedaling.

Withdrawing 4,000 troops and dangling the prospect of additional withdrawals is a token political gesture, not a new strategy. If it proves enough to cow Congress into halting its push for a more robust and concrete exit strategy, that would be political cowardice at its worst.

We hope that Petraeus can resist the political pressure and provide an unvarnished assessment of the military situation in Iraq. He is an important source of information, but he is only one source - and he is not the man who sets American policy. If Bush insists on listening only to those who agree with him, Congress and the public must weigh Petraeus' report against all data, including two new independent evaluations sharply at odds with the Pentagon's claim that things in Iraq are substantially better.

The Government Accountability Office found that the Iraqi government has not met 11 of 18 benchmarks set by Congress and that violence remains high, despite the White House's disingenuous claims of success. And a commission of retired senior military officers determined that Iraq's army will be unable to take over responsibility for internal security in the next 12 to 18 months. That is four years beyond what the Pentagon predicted in 2004. It is too long.

Nothing has changed about Bush's intentions. Waving off the independent reports, he plans to stay the course and make his successor fix his Iraq fiasco. Military progress without political progress is meaningless, and Bush no more has a plan for unifying Iraq now than when he started the war. The United States needs a prudent exit strategy that will withdraw American forces and try to stop Iraq's chaos from spreading.

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