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June 28, 2005

A Big Speech -- For Bush, and for Us
Posted by Derek Chollet

A few weeks ago we were calling for a serious discussion about what do to next in Iraq, and for progressives to, ahem, MoveOn from the sole obsession with what happened three years ago and the Downing Street memo, etc. Well, we wanted a debate, and thanks to the American people -- whose concerns have been expressed during the past few weeks in poll after poll – we got one.  That’s why the White House had to scramble to get the President on the airwaves tonight.  This will be right up there with January’s State of the Union as one of the most important speeches of Bush’s second term so far.

Obviously the President’s performance this evening will shape the contours of what comes next (just as an aside, I think it is absolutely appalling that the networks are balking at giving him the airtime – we are at war, and they worry about interrupting some episode of Survivor or Dancing with the Stars?).  He’ll likely make a strong presentation for how difficult things are and call for toughness and patience in the days ahead – and saying so in front of hundreds of cheering troops from Ft. Bragg, it will make for a powerful image.  Remember, it may seem amazing to those of us who do nothing more than sit behind desks all day, but morale among the troops in Iraq is quite high.  My guess is that we’ll hear a lot less “last throes” happy talk, but also get a more toned-down version of what Rove said last week in New York: basically the going is tough and it’s time for the tough to get going -- and we’re tough, they’re not.

As for the progressive response in this debate, by and large I think it has been extremely smart and effective.  Biden’s speech last week was a tour de force --outlining a strong critique as well as showing that there can be an effective, and bipartisan, way forward -- and so far Democrats on the Hill (mainly in the Senate caucus) have resisted the temptation to call for anything resembling a pullout.

But my concern is that what we won’t hear from Bush tonight – a timetable for turning things over to the Iraqis (in fact, we’ll hear the opposite, a full-throated argument for why this is a bad idea) – will only increase the pressure within progressive circles and their among leaders to outline a real alternative to Bush, and let’s face it, the only thing that does not look like just tweaks on his policy is a timetable for withdrawal.

Pressure for this has been burbling for awhile, especially among the activist crowd and even in policy circles.  We see this idea embedded in John Kerry’s otherwise fine oped in the New York Times today.  Buried in the middle of the piece, he writes:

“The administration must immediately draw up a detailed plan with clear milestones and deadlines for the transfer of military and police responsibilities to Iraqis after the December elections. The plan should be shared with Congress. The guideposts should take into account political and security needs and objectives and be linked to specific tasks and accomplishments. If Iraqis adopt a constitution and hold elections as planned, support for the insurgency should fall and Iraqi security forces should be able to take on more responsibility. It will also set the stage for American forces to begin to come home.”

Bush is not going to do that tonight.  Now there’s a lot of nuance and caveats in what Kerry writes, and the general thrust of it is sensible: the more capable the Iraqis become, the less we need to be there.  But I fear that what progressives will rally around is the first sentence only – to set a timetable for withdrawal.  There is already work being done among some serious folks in our leading think tanks to outline a plan to do just that. 

On policy grounds, I am genuinely torn about this idea, but on political grounds I have a clear conclusion.  It seems to me that whatever these efforts to establish a timetable come up with, all their nuance and serious thinking will get lost in translation, and what the public will hear (and what the Republicans will promote) is one simple headline: “Democrats Outline Plan to Withdraw from Iraq.” 

Is that what we want?  We have to think long and hard about this one. 

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Comments

If Bush was making a speech that broke new ground or was a change in direction, the networks would be obnoxious not to cover it.

But if the speech is more of the same, the networks have no obligation to bump revenue generating stuff for bullshit propaganda.

The Bushies need to tip their hand.

I agree, in general terms, that we shouldn't withdraw immediately or precipitously -- we need to stay long enough to give the constitution drafting process and the next round of elections time to work.

At some point, though, it really comes down to a question of the efficacy of what we're doing. Are we really going to achieve a different outcome by staying for ten additional years as opposed to two. And given the fact that (as Steinberg and O'Hanlon point out in the linked article) most Iraqis don't support our continued presence, and that the insurgency seems to be quite resiliant and self-replenishing in terms of attracting recruits, I think this really is the salient question. To put it in rough quantitative terms, our burn rate for maintaining the occupation is ~1,000 KIA and $100 billion per year -- so staying an additional eight years is roughly 8,000 additional KIA and $800 billion added to the national debt. What "upward delta in value" do we achive for those costs? Does anyone really still believe we're going to achieve a genuine "transformation" of the values and political culture of Iraq? Or some wider "transformation" of the region? If we really believe that, it might be worth these costs, but do the facts support that belief?

"Is that what we want? We have to think long and hard about this one."

Yes. I want my loved ones home from Iraq. Alive.

...the strawman work messrs Steinberg & O'Hanlon did is exceptional and should immediately become the 'living document' that State and the WH follows to extricate ourselves from Iraq while also allowing that country a shot at rebuilding itself.

I would like to see more debate on what could be done to circumvent this Administration with true action. That is, not relying on this Administration to do anything except excuse and obfuscate while inflaming the passions of those Americans that are predisposed to their proclaimed philosophy. This, along with timid tweaks to policy, is not likely to address the serious issues we are faced with. The ineptitude and inability of the Bush Administration has been proven to most thoughtful minds, but our leaders will not adjust to this revelation in kind. Continual reliance upon them to guide the way is - at this point - basically foolish.

So, are there truly any alternatives? Can it be taken into the hands of Americans who will find ways to solve this in a way our current politicans can or will not do?

I've been saying this on the Huffington post, and I'll say it here.

Forget insurgencies, Al-qaida, WMD, and any other crap that the administration has used to ofuscate the world commuinty and explain our continued presence their. IT IS ALL SHOW. All of it, the old government, the new goverment, the long hard slog, show. Our presence there is about oil. Do not fool yourself into thinking that anything else out of the Bush admin's mouth concerning that patch of land is valid. This is not a bumbling moron, this is deliberate, methodical, and slow.
We are there for the oil. If we leave Iraq (we won't) opec will charge us market prices for oil, and the U.S. will crumble. Trans Atlantic shipping will slow, food production will slow, interstate shipping will slow.
Supermarket shelves will empty and not restock. Massive layoffs combined with soaring food prices and scarcity. Riots, death, here.

We are not ready for oil at market prices, so are soldiers are in Iraq, holding guns to their head, while we build the pipes, drain the oil, and depart.

That's the gods honest truth, and if we don't deal with it. Any other action we take won't make a bit of difference.

It seems to me that whatever these efforts to establish a timetable come up with, all their nuance and serious thinking will get lost in translation, and what the public will hear (and what the Republicans will promote) is one simple headline: “Democrats Outline Plan to Withdraw from Iraq.”

They'll say that, sure. But it might be up to folks like you to say "Democrats Outline Plan to Succeed in Iraq." I'm starting to think the American military presence in Iraq is making things harder, not better, for the Iraqi politicians we favor. Drawdowns after milestones (not necessarily on a timetable) give everybody a light at the end of the tunnel. We should also stop building permanent bases in Iraq.

If we don't build the bases, and build any sort of stable democratic presense in Iraq minus U.S. forces. We will be thanked, flowers will be thrown at our retreating feet.

But back in the United States, destruction and anarchy will reign. We do not have a capacity to survive without discount oil.

I'm for bringing troops home, and for us to live the American dream without Iraqi oil. So let's focus on the REAL scope of the problem here.

How do we get remove ourselves from the middle eastern oil teat as quickly as possible?
How do keep India and China from getting on the oil teat?

Come on people! we need scope. We can't just leave Iraq because we want to. What's the answer?

Withdrawal of troops from a hostile area can only be described in one of two ways: 1) successful accomplishment the mission (victory) 2) retreat (and acceptance of some degree of defeat). It is paramount that policymakers make sure we never send US forces in harms way without th full expectation of withdrawing under condtion #1. Of course, if we do find ourselves in a position where we are losing and the prospects for loss (or costs of victory) are too high, then we should consider retreat.

What we should NEVER do is declare a timetable for retreat. "Hey bad guys, we think things are going pretty badly for us so we're only going to stick it out another 6 months to see if things get better."

It is completely irresponsible to have forces engaged in harms way with a clock ticking on their departure. You either are there to succeed or you get them to safety.

Of course withdrawal and timetables for actions can be discussed. Its certainly an appropriate discussion for Iraq. But if we decide to retreat, then retreat. Don't set a timetable for retreat.

My old boss John Kerry should remember a quote from a similar struggle of long ago: "how do you ask someone to be the last person to die for a mistake." You can't.

As Shali said re: Bosnia 1996 (paraphrasing), I'm more interested in a success strategy than an exit strategy.

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