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Bush, Asleep In The Bunker

By David Corn

I'm sleeping a lot better than people would assume. --George W. Bush

Don Rumsfeld is the finest Secretary of Defense this nation has ever had. --Dick Cheney

12/21/06 "Tom Paine" --- - This is scary. The president of the United States of America has created a hellish disaster that has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians and thousands of American soldiers, and he's resting well. The vice president believes that the man responsible for three of the greatest military blunders in U.S. history (attacking Iraq without devising a strategy for securing the country after the invasion; dissolving the Iraqi army, creating armed and trained recruits for the incipient insurgency; and mounting an extensive de-Baathification campaign that destroyed the governing infrastructure of the nation) did his job well.

Such comments suggest that the two people in charge of this country are not living in denial but detachment. They must realize that Iraq is a mess perhaps beyond remedy. But that doesn't seem to affect them. How can that be?

Bush and Cheney are in the bunker. The American public has rendered a judgment on the war and Bush and Cheney's management of it which is: not worth it, and you blew it. Washington's policy poohbahs—with the release of the Iraq Study Group report—pronounced the war practically lost. (Bush, showing more than he intended, said of the report, “To show you how important this [report] is, I read it.” Still, he rejected its key Hail-Mary proposals.) Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, the nation's number-one Johnny-come-lately, seconded the Iraq Study Group's conclusion that the United States is losing in Iraq. And all this occurred before the recent news that the Joint Chiefs of Staff have concluded that the White House cannot define the military mission in Iraq, that attacks against Iraqi and American troops are (once again) up, and that the Pentagon considers Shiite militants, not the Sunni insurgency, as the most grave threat in Iraq (meaning the Bush administration is supporting a government run by Shiites unable or unwilling to control Shiite death squads).

Bush seems unable to grapple with the worsening situation in Iraq. Apparently lacking ideas of his own, he held high-profile meetings with military commanders and experts to ponder options. And this was front-page news. (Shouldn't the president regularly be talking to his commanders and outside experts about the Iraq dilemma?) Yet this chatter produced nothing immediate. Bush delayed a speech in which he supposedly will announce changes in his Iraq policy. The bottom line: The commander in chief had no clear notion of his own about what to do next.

As the Iraq Study Group showed, there are no new big—or promising—ideas for Iraq. The report produced by the panel led by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Representative Lee Hamilton was infused with not only realism but also pessimism. It noted the fundamental challenge is resolving the deeply rooted sectarian conflict causing much of the violence in Iraq. Yet the report said, “Many of Iraq's most powerful and well-positioned leaders are not working toward a united Iraq.” If that is indeed the case, the main proposals of the commission—enhance the training of Iraqi security forces, withdraw combat troops slowly (if conditions permit), and conduct a diplomatic blitz—will not likely produce much. After all, why bother to train the security forces of a government driven by sectarian strife? (Might U.S. forces end up training militia loyalists?) The Baker report—quite purposefully—avoided talk of victory in Iraq. The mission per Baker is to clean up the mess (somewhat) and get the United States out.

That is not, I am guessing, how Bush views the matter. He cannot concede he's made that mess. He cannot let go of his grandiose (post-weapons of mass destruction) justification for bringing death and chaos to Iraq: Turning Iraq into a stable beacon of democracy and spreading freedom and positive change throughout the region. (Of course, the opposite appears to be happening. Arab moderates have been weakened by the Iraq war, and existing conflicts in the area have been intensified by the war.) So here's the bad news: Bush is in a hole and he will keep on digging.

Bush is not interested in extrication. (No thank you, Mr. Baker.) He wants that victory. Consequently, he's going to be more interested in listening to anyone who says there is a path to victory than anyone who counsels there is way (maybe) to minimize the damage done. And since any alternative to the present course, including a minimize-the-damage-done plan, carries with it the risk of dangerous consequences (withdrawing U.S. troops could lead to more chaos in Iraq and the onset of regional conflict), Bush probably figures he might as well pursue a plan with some promise—however illusory—of victory.

It's no surprise, then, that the White House seems to be leaning toward a “surge”—sending thousands of troops into Baghdad in a desperate attempt to stifle the sectarian violence there, if only temporarily. The Pentagon opposes doing so. And such an action, as Powell, the Iraq Study Group, General John Abizaid, the Central Command chief, have noted, is unlikely to address the fundamental factors shaping and driving the sectarian warfare. But by ordering a surge, Bush could play the role of the decisive decider-in-chief, willing to make the hard call necessary for triumph.

As Bush and Cheney plot the way ahead in that bunker, they are dismissing the Baker report and holding on fast to the belief they did the right thing and this will all end up well. It's easy to envision them bucking not only Baker and Daddy Bush's realist pals but the military, Nervous-Nellie Republicans in the Congress, and, yes, the American public. Days before the elections, Cheney laid out the White House strategy when he said that the Bush administration will pursue its Iraq policy “full speed ahead.” Despite the election results, the Baker report, and the ever-deteriorating reality in Iraq, Bush shows no signs of revising his basic approach. It is full speed ahead-perhaps until he can dump this war on another president in January 2009—and damn the consequences.

David Corn writes The Loyal Opposition twice a month for TomPaine.com. Corn is also the Washington editor of The Nation and the co-author, along with Michael Isikoff, of Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and the Selling of the Iraq War. Read his blog at http://www.davidcorn.com.

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