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The President delivering his "Strategy for Victory" speech in Annapolis on November 30, 2005, and on the USS Abraham Lincoln, before declaring the end of "major combat oprations" in Iraq on May 1, 2005 (White House photos)

The President in his Labyrinth, I
A Strategy for Surrender: "Withdrawal With Honor"

Wednesday's speech on a “Plan for Victory” in Iraq by President Bush seems, two weeks shy of a thousand days into this war, a tad overdue. Give it the benefit of the doubt. But it jars against a fascinating article in the Washington Post, from which I’ll cite three candid paragraphs: “The negativism [in news reports from Iraq] has been so pronounced that the official spokesman for the U.S. mission in Iraq, John McGowan, was led to remark last month: ‘The pessimism among the correspondents has never been deeper than now.’ From all accounts, however, the President is getting few, if any, pessimistic reports from his subordinates in Washington on Iraq.

“‘[He] tells visitors,’ the papers reported last month, ‘that every responsible official he has sent to Iraq reports that there is no stalemate; that the insurgents are suffering heavy losses, have a shortage of medicine and food, are finding it increasingly difficult to move supplies and face morale problems.’ These officials include generals in Iraq, the defense secretary, and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, all of whom have emphasized ‘progress’ in their assessments of the war this summer.

“One result of this conflict is public confusion, which the opinion polls [which have dropped below 40 percent] reflect. Another result is mistrust between the press and American officialdom involved in the war in Iraq. At a social gathering in Honolulu a few weeks ago, a correspondent was introduced to an admiral, who curtly announced, ‘If I’d known you were a newspaperman, I wouldn’t have shaken your hand.’ The press corps, at times, has been no more gracious. Many of the statements issued by the American establishment in Baghdad these days are challenged bluntly as propaganda or self-delusion.”

Of course, I’ve tricked you: the above article is indeed from the Washington Post, written by Richard Harwood. But I didn’t give you the date: September 3, 1967. I took the liberty to switch just a couple of words: Instead of Vietnam, I inserted Iraq, and instead of Saigon, I inserted Baghdad. Some of you may have got a hint of what was up when you read (and presumably remembered) John McGowan. But everything else is as it appeared in the Post in 1967, including the reference to the president’s poll numbers, which by that year had fallen below 40 percent. The point being that President Bush’s speech to cheering sailors in Annapolis today could have been plugged out of the same script. It includes the same delusions. It includes the same phraseology of the obvious—and the obviously slapdash: “Our mission in Iraq is to win the war.” After 1,000 days, that’s the best the Bush administration can do? Produce quotes worthy of the average Saturday afternoon football coach previewing a game on ESPN?

The substance of the speech (and the “strategy for victory”) reveals a staggering disconnect from reality and reliance on Lyndon Johnson- and Nixon-like projections of costless optimism that have the feel of a game of Risk, but played by cruel Roman legionnaires: Their game pieces are flesh and blood GIs and Iraqis: “We will continue to shift from providing security and conducting operations against the enemy nationwide to conducting more specialized operations targeted at the most dangerous terrorists,” the president said. How, one wonders, does he know who the most dangerous terrorists are and where they’re going to strike next (especially without the Miami police department, also known as KGB Miami, helping him out)? If he’s so sure where the most dangerous terrorists are, why the long wait, until now, to target them more precisely? If the president’s men have been ruinously incapable of developing an effective counter-insurgency until now, their intelligence having the same credibility gap as their military effectiveness, what has suddenly changed to give the president this renewed sense that any “strategy” deserves pre-emptive applause from his choreographed audience in Annapolis?

The Harwood article in the Post addresses that very point: “The ‘credibility gap’ is a product of many factors, not least of which is ignorance. The state of the enemy’s morale, for example, influences any assessment of the war. But neither the CIA nor the American correspondents can say with certainty whether the morale of the Vietcong [insurgents] is up or down at any given time. The Johnson/Bush Administration, on the basis of intelligence estimates, nevertheless insists that the enemy is ‘hurting badly.’” For all the justifiable doubt shed on comparing Iraq with Vietnam early in the war, the parallels in the rhetoric (if, admittedly, not quite in the ideologies on the ground) are veering toward the ridiculous. “We will increasingly move out of cities, reduce the number of bases from which we operate, and conduct fewer patrols and convoys.” Is this Bush in 2005 or Nixon in 1971? (For the record: Bush).

The Times quotes an unnamed “senior administration official” saying that Bush’s ultimate goal is to move to a “smaller, more lethal” American force that “can be just as successful.” Haven’t we heard that song before when Donald Rumsfeld launched the invasion with a “smaller, more lethal” American force that he assumed, against the advice of his generals, could do the job? And that smaller force “can be just as successful” as what — the Wal-Mart army that Rumsfeld threw in, and that turned out to be disastrously unsuccessful? And how is success to be measured when military officials are themselves admitting that outright victory is no longer the goal so much as, in Rumsfeld’s words, “a coalition strategy to help the Iraqi people increasingly take control of their country”? And how more obvious can it be that these are the same words, the same strategies, the same illusions that had Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger promising “peace with honor” in Vietnam? The Pentagon is preparing to spend $3.9 billion on Iraqi uniforms, training, equipment and construction of new police stations on top of the $10.6 billion Congress already approved to rebuild the Iraqi army, and on top of the $6 billion a month we’re spending to enact this “strategy for victory.” We did the very same thing thirty-five years ago, thinking that once we had the South Vietnamese army dressed in pretty uniforms, tanked up in impressive little fortresses and trained to fight their own battles, we’d have it made. We were wrong then.

We’re wrong now: No representative Arab army will fight an Arab insurgency. A factional Arab army, maybe: The Shiites will split off, and do battle on their own against the Sunnis once the Americans are out of the way and a full-fledged civil war can unravel with all the ease it’s straining for at the moment. But Americans are deluding themselves if they think an Iraqi army whose membership includes all clans and all sects will either stay together or be willing to wage war against its own. It’ll hobble on as a unit while Americans are there. It’ll grow. It’ll train. It’ll devour and stock equipment it’ll soon need. Then it’ll splinter the moment the Americans leave. For now, Bush’s “strategy for victory” is designed to delay the inevitable and give the United States a form of “withdrawal with honor.” That’s all the strategy is about. The war itself is lost. So is Iraq. On Wednesday, President Bush surrendered, and submitted a thirty-five page plan of retreat. It was ghost-written by John P. Murtha.

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