Blame Iraq

While I was writing this, the BBC reported that U.S. troops stormed the Iranian consulate in the northern Iraqi town of Irbil and seized six members of staff.

In reviewing last night’s speech, Walter Shapiro wrote in Salon:

Ever since Bush denounced the theretofore unknown “Axis of Evil” in his 2002 State of the Union Address, at a moment when the nation was still fixated on the horrors of Sept. 11, it has been instructive to listen for new rhetorical gambits in major presidential speeches. That is why it is possible that the most fateful words that Bush uttered from the White House library on Wednesday night were these: “Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria.”

Even though the Democrats have won the rhetorical war in labeling the Bush war plan as escalation, 21,000 additional troops is pretty small potatoes by the standards of prior wars such as Vietnam. But expanding the battlefield to the borders of Iran and Syria — if that was indeed what Bush was suggesting — now that would qualify as escalation, as even Henry Kissinger might admit.

See rege at The Carpetbagger for more discussion. This truly is the part of the speech that needs the most scrutiny and attention.

Oh, and without even looking, I’m willing to bet that one could find critics of the war complaining about the unguarded borders from at least 2005, if not earlier.

Well, on to the reviews —

I have to say one good thing about the New York Times — its editorials beat the pants of the Washington Post’s. Compare/contrast what the two august newspapers cranked out this morning:

Shorter Washington Post: Risks, obligations, fudge, ponies, maybe, uncertainty, ponies, wait and see. More fudge.

Shorter New York Times: Bleep.

Here’s the first paragraph from the NY Times:

President Bush told Americans last night that failure in Iraq would be a disaster. The disaster is Mr. Bush’s war, and he has already failed. Last night was his chance to stop offering more fog and be honest with the nation, and he did not take it.

It gets better after that.

Over at MSNBC/Newsweek, Howard Fineman is working hard to redeem himself from the days when his fawning deference to Lord Dubya earned him the title Media Whore of the Year.

George W. Bush spoke with all the confidence of a perp in a police lineup….

…if he was trying to assure the country that he had confidence in his own plan to prevent that collapse, well, a picture is worth a thousand words. And the words themselves weren’t that assuring either. Does anyone in America or Iraq , or anywhere else in the world for that matter, really think that the Sunnis and Shia will make peace? Does anyone think that embedded American soldiers won’t be in danger of being fragged by their own Iraqi brethren? Does anyone really think that Iran and Syria can be prevented from playing havoc in Iraq and the rest of the region by expressions of presidential will?

To answer Howie’s question — yes, there are people who think that. There’s no end to the remarkable self-deluding properties of human cognition. But enough of the freak show.

Shorter Boston Globe: Bush won’t face reality.

Shorter Martin Kettle (UK): Blair is screwed.

Now for some substance, from Walter Shapiro, Salon:

Throughout the long century to come, any future leader contemplating sending American troops into combat should carefully watch a tape of George W. Bush’s speech to the nation Wednesday night — and ponder its underlying lessons. This was Bush deflated, his arrogance temporarily placed in a blind trust, looking grayer than ever with his brow furrowed with lines of worry. How humiliating for Bush to be forced to say with a stony face, “The situation in Iraq is unacceptable to the American people — and it is unacceptable to me.”

My take on the “unacceptable” line, in the context of the speech, was that Bush was wagging a finger at Iraqis for being messy. This is from the transcript:

The violence in Iraq — particularly in Baghdad — overwhelmed the political gains the Iraqis had made. Al-Qaida terrorists and Sunni insurgents recognized the mortal danger that Iraq’s elections posed for their cause. And they responded with outrageous acts of murder aimed at innocent Iraqis. They blew up one of the holiest shrines in Shia Islam — the Golden Mosque of Samarra — in a calculated effort to provoke Iraq’s Shia population to retaliate. Their strategy worked. Radical Shia elements, some supported by Iran, formed death squads. And the result was a vicious cycle of sectarian violence that continues today.

The situation in Iraq is unacceptable to the American people — and it is unacceptable to me. Our troops in Iraq have fought bravely. They have done everything we have asked them to do. Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me.

Is he not saying everything would have worked out if the Iraqis had behaved themselves?

Fred Kaplan at Slate wonders what Bush will do if the Iraqis fail again:

President Bush declared tonight that America’s commitment is “not open-ended” and that “America will hold the Iraqi government to … benchmarks.” However, he said nothing about what will happen if the Iraqis fail to meet those benchmarks. And without a warning (even a sternly intoned “or else!”), benchmarks mean nothing.

And let’s look at those benchmarks. Bush said that the Iraqi government has promised “to take responsibility for security in all of Iraq’s provinces by November.” It “will pass legislation to share oil revenues among all Iraqis.” It will “spend $10 billion of its own money on reconstruction and infrastructure.” It will “hold provincial elections later this year,” to empower local leaders, especially Sunni leaders. And, in a further effort to co-opt Sunni insurgency, it “will reform de-Baathification laws and establish a fair process for considering amendments to Iraq’s constitution.”

When did all these promises get made? Where did Maliki suddenly get the political power, or even the political audacity, to make them? One obstacle to reconstruction has been pervasive corruption within the Iraqi ministries; how does he hope to clean that up? The call for provincial elections has been ignored for months. The Shiite-led government promised to amend the constitution—with special attention to altering the language on oil revenue sharing and de-Baathification—back when the constitution was ratified; it has refused to bring up the issues ever since.

Still, if (if?) the plan fails, Bush will say it is Malaki’s failure, not his. From the transcript:

Only the Iraqis can end the sectarian violence and secure their people. And their government has put forward an aggressive plan to do it.

Our past efforts to secure Baghdad failed for two principal reasons: There were not enough Iraqi and American troops to secure neighborhoods that had been cleared of terrorists and insurgents, and there were too many restrictions on the troops we did have. Our military commanders reviewed the new Iraqi plan to ensure that it addressed these mistakes. They report that it does. They also report that this plan can work.

That’s his exit strategy — blame the Iraqis.

Richard Wolffe, Newsweek

… if you listened closely to President Bush on Wednesday night, the much-anticipated speech didn’t change the central mission much. It’s clear, hold and build—only this time with money behind it, but not that much money, and not enough new troops to really make a difference. And, Bush signaled loud and clear, it’s really the Iraqis’ problem now.

Yes, the president accepted a degree of responsibility for the failures that have characterized the war in Iraq. “Where mistakes have been made,” he said, “the responsibility rests with me.” But he didn’t go into much detail about what those mistakes were. The basic strategy had been right all along, Bush seemed to be saying. The tactics just needed a little tweaking. …

… Bush reduced the U.S. role to that of loyal watchdog to the Iraqi government. “America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced,” he said. “If there is change in Iraq, it will have to come almost entirely from the government in Baghdad.”…

…Yet there was little discussion in the speech, or behind the scenes with the Iraqis, of what might happen if they failed to deliver once again. Bush’s aides say that talking about consequences—or threatening withdrawal—will weaken the Iraqi government and embolden insurgents and militias. President Bush simply said that he warned the Iraqi prime minister that the U.S. mission was not “open ended.”

“If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people,” he said, “and it will lose the support of the Iraqi people.” It was a curiously impersonal construction. He never suggested the Iraqi leader might lose the support of George W. Bush. And he never mentioned that the polls show a clear majority of Americans opposing his policy of sending more troops to Iraq.

Jack Murtha and others have been saying for months that it’s time for Iraqis to take responsibility for their own country. Now, I personally never saw this as much more than a talking point, to make the bugout seem less ignoble than it might otherwise. As much as I am all for getting out asap, let’s not kid ourselves that we’ll be able to go back to sleep and ignore Iraq after that. Whatever nastiness that goes on once we leave — and there will be nastiness, although not necessarily more nastiness than what will occur if we stay — will be seized by the Right as their next great “stabbed in the back” myth. For the rest of our lives, we’ll have to listen to the whackjobs whine about who lost Iraq? Anticipating this, it appears the politicians of both parties are pinning as much as possible on Iraqis. I can’t say I blame them.

But Bush is still reluctant to let go of his glorious little war, so 20,000 more troops will be tossed into the meatgrinder. Their purpose will be to buy Bush time to knit a bigger butt cover.

But this business about the Iranian consulate worries me; it seems, well, provocative. Is Bush deliberately trying to stir up enough trouble in the Middle East that Congress cannot deny him his 20,000 troops?

See also: Juan Cole, “Bush Sends GIs to his Private Fantasyland“; Glenn Greenwald, “The President’s intentions towards Iran need much more attention.”