A make-or-break speech by a beleagured American president is usually preceded by a demonstration of American might somewhere on the planet and the run-up to Bush’s address Wednesday night was no exception. The AC-130 U.S. gunship that massacred a convoy of fleeing Islamists on Somalia’s southwestern border, apparently along with dozens of nomads, their families and livestock, was deployed on its mission on Sunday, to make timely newspaper headlines indicative of Bush’s determination to strike at terror wherever it may lurk. Moral to nomads: when the US president schedules a speech, don’t herd, don’t go to wedding parties, head for the nearest cave.
President Bush stuck to his expected script and said he plans to boost America’s forces in Iraq by 4,000 Marines to Anbar province and 5 combat brigades — 17,500 troops — to Baghdad, in a new scheme to regain control of the city. Past strategies to do this had failed, Bush explained, because of insufficient numbers. He added ominously, “Also, there were too many restrictions on the troops we did have.”
In other words, the gloves will now be off in the impending onslaught on the areas of Baghdad controlled by Muktada al Sadr and his Mehdi army. In urban counter-insurgency – the specialty of the politically agile and ambitious new US commander Gen. David Petraeus – the unrestricted U.S. response to a sniper attack or a street corner ambush will be to level the block and if necessary, the entire neighborhood, in a reprise of the destruction of much of Fallujah at the end of 2004.
But Baghdad is a vast city, and the actual fighting component of the beefed up US force in the whole of Iraq won’t be more than 30,000 – and probably less, so it’s impossible to see the new plan as anything other than stupid and cruel, destined only to deepen sectarian hatreds, and to kill, wound and render homeless very large numbers of Iraqis crammed in the slum areas — i.e., very crowded houses — which are Muktada’s base.
Within ten minutes of Bush’s half-hour address, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois made an unusually spirited rebuttal on behalf of his party, (far better than the usual slither from Obama ) saying military strategies had failed, and that it was time to bring the troops home and tell the Iraqis to figure it out for themselves. But such bluntness won’t translate into the only way the Democrats could end the war, which is to refuse to okay the money to pay for it. This is something the Democrats could do, since they now control Congress.
But despite the urgings of Senator Ted Kennedy, Rep. Jack Murtha and some others, they shirk the opportunity the voters gave them last November 7. Although heavily pressured by their constituents, a majority of the Democrats in Congress dread White House accusations that to nix the funds would be to leave US troops in Iraq defenseless. So instead they will contrive symbolic votes in protest against Bush’s escalation, okay the money and then spend the run-up to the presidential election in 2008, piously saying “We told you so” as the bad news and the bodies come home from Iraq.
Hagel says Can’t
Seeking to explain why the Democrats wouldn’t do anything so bold as to seriously try to stop the war, one Democrat on TV said smugly to an incredulous Pat Buchanan, that after all it was a Republican war, “they started it”. Is there a more ludicrous simulacrum of inanity and misplaced self-conceit than Senator Joe Biden, the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee? Questioning Condoleezza Rice Biden rambled through a thicket of platitudes, leaving the perennially silly Secretary of State unscathed.
She got far rougher treatment from the lion of Nebraska, Senator Chuck Hagel as well as other Republicans like George Voinovich. Hagel: “You cannot sit here today — not because you’re dishonest or you don’t understand — but no one in our government can sit here today and tell Americans that we won’t engage the Iranians and the Syrians cross-border. Some of us remember 1970, Madam Secretary, and that was Cambodia. And when our government lied to the American people and said, ‘We didn’t cross the border going into Cambodia,’ in fact, we did. I happen to know something about that, as do some on this committee. So, Madam Secretary, when you set in motion the kind of policy that the president is talking about here, it’s very, very dangerous. As a matter of fact, I have to say, Madam Secretary, that I think this speech given last night by this president represents the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it’s carried out. I will resist it.”
“I don’t see it, and the President doesn’t see it, as an escalation,” Rice stuttered. “Would you call it a decrease?” asked Hagel . “I would call it, Senator, an augmentation.”
At least a dozen Republican senators, some of them expecting tight races in 2008, like Senator Norman Coleman of Minnesota, were denouncing Bush’s plan even before he stepped in front of the cameras to announce it.
At least Senator Russ Feingold brought up the obvious object lesson, regarding what Congress can do, namely the Boland Amendment, passed by Democrats back in Reagan time, forbidding the administration to send material support to the Nicaraguan Contras. Efforts by the Reagan administration to circumvent this law – organized in part by the present Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, led to the Iran-Contra scandal, which badly dented Reagan in his final years.But Feingold got not support on a new Boland Amendment from his Democratic colleagues.
Some 80 per cent of Americans think Bush has made a hash of things in Iraq and it’s a fair bet to say that the President’s speech won’t have done much to reverse that assessment. Perhaps it was the shift of setting for his broadcast to the nation to the White House library that made the president seem uncomfortable. With the exception of Laura, the former librarian, the Bush clan are not a bookish lot. The late Brendan Gill reported that having stayed at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, he scoured the premises late one night in search of something with which to read himself to asleep and could only find “The Fart Book”.
If Bush did like to get his nose into a book instead of over the handlebars of his mountain bike he could glance at Sun Tzu who, (as Chuck Spinney reminded us recently on this site) , said, Avoid protracted war and attack cities as a last resort.
After the speech Frank Bardacke wrote to me from Watsonville:
“Alex, One good thing about the surge that I haven’t seen or heard anyone say (not that I’ve searched) is that it will ruin McCain’s chance at the Presidency. It in’t gonna work, and it will make it impossible to run for President on a slogan of more troops to Iraq. So maybe when more troops just means more bloodshed the whole adventure will have to be called off. The next President will close it out, it will be historically summed up as the Boy Emperor’s War, and most folks here will do their very best to forget the whole damn thing.”
I wrote back: “Good point. I thought McCain looked very groggy in the post speech analysis. But can they call it all off? I mean, at what point did a Roman emperor say, “Screw it, give them goddam Dacia. We don’t need it. Parthia too.” No, never. It was surge surge surge until finally the overtaxed citizenry of the Roman Empire hung out signs saying “Goths Welcome! 15 per cent off for Parthians!” The Brits were still battling for south Yemen in the 1960s when they hadn’t a dime in the bank. In those days Aden was a “crucial entrepot”, now days, it’s a “backwater”, just like Grenada which, when the New Jewel movement briefly gleamed, was “athwart our vital sea lanes”.
Final word from Frank: “The Romans built aqueducts, law, peace,you know, the Life of Brian list. What do we build? Nothing. Here is the way I have been putting it to my dog Nellie as we walk along the levy: We have the power to destroy everything, and the authority to build nothing.”