Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Let the spin begin

The White House is putting out its version of the Iraq strategy review, courtesy of the New York Times.

The major news here is that General George Casey, the top military commander in Iraq, may be moved out of the post by March -- several months earlier than planned.

As well, there's this frank assessment of what happened to the administration's strategy:

In interviews in Washington and Baghdad, senior officials said the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department had also failed to take seriously warnings, including some from its own ambassador in Baghdad, that sectarian violence could rip the country apart and turn Mr. Bush’s promise to “clear, hold and build” Iraqi neighborhoods and towns into an empty slogan.

This left the president and his advisers constantly lagging a step or two behind events on the ground.

“We could not clear and hold,” Stephen J. Hadley, the president’s national security adviser, acknowledged in a recent interview, in a frank admission of how American strategy had crumbled. “Iraqi forces were not able to hold neighborhoods, and the effort to build did not show up. The sectarian violence continued to mount, so we did not make the progress on security we had hoped. We did not bring the moderate Sunnis off the fence, as we had hoped. The Shia lost patience, and began to see the militias as their protectors.”

Hmmm. Pretty much what everyone outside of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has been saying for quite some time.

Other than that, however, the article is mostly devoted to giving the administration's version of the Iraq debate. If you believe them, the current strategy was Casey's, and Bush has had doubts for a year or more. Finally those doubts grew strong enough that he ordered a complete strategy review in September -- on his own initiative, not because of political pressure.

Note the subtext: Bush saw things clearly; his only failing was (understandably) placing too much faith in his general. Bush was not forced to review his Iraq strategy; he moved with clear-eyed deliberateness. End result: Bush gets let off the hook for what has happened in Iraq, and Casey is the fall guy, along with Donald Rumsfeld.

But given Bush's own statements and policy decisions, this seems to be a clear case of attempted hagiography. He constantly insisted that the war was being won. Every time a spasm of violence ended, he cited it as progress -- until the next, even worse spasm occurred. He steadfastly resisted calls to either send more troops or increase the size of the military or even define how what he was doing was achieving anything other than bloody stasis amid a widening sectarian war. He insisted on "victory", but repeatedly resisted providing the resources and strategic route that might have achieved it.

Does Casey bear some responsibility? It's reasonable to assume so, but we'll only know for sure when the Bush administration records are made public 25 years from now. His plan seems reasonable, had it been adopted quickly and with adequate resources. But it also seems that his reports to Bush suffered from both the traditional military "can do!" attitude -- which led to overly sunny analyses -- and a cognizance of military limitations that Bush himself had not yet (and perhaps has not yet) fully embraced.

But to suggest that the problem was Casey's ignores both Bush's own actions and his ultimate role as commander in chief. At some point an observer must conclude that Bush is either the problem directly, or alarmingly dependent on advisers who he is hideously bad at choosing.

Either way, his credibility is shot.

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