"I want to talk about the war we're in," the President of the United States said in Cleveland, and then he sighed, an exhausted ahhhhh. "I didn't want to be a war President," he continued, and the stage was set for George W. Bush to say something real as the Senate was beginning debate, yet again, on motions to start a withdrawal from Iraq. But George W. Bush has demonstrated only an intermittent relationship with reality about Iraq. He has trotted out the same old ironclad abstractions--"Our enemies will stop at nothing ..." and "Freedom is God's gift to man"--for four years. Recently, in his desperation, starting with his speech at the Naval War College on June 28, he has been telling an outright lie, and he repeated it now, awkwardly, in Cleveland: "The same people that attacked us on September the 11th is the crowd that is now bombing people, killing innocent men, women and children, many of whom are Muslims, trying to stop the advance of a system based upon liberty."
That is not true. The group doing the most spectacular bombings in Iraq was named al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia by its founder, Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, now deceased, in an attempt to aggrandize his reputation in jihadi-world. It is a sliver group, representing no more than 5% of the Sunni insurgency. It shares a philosophy, but not much else, with the real al-Qaeda, which operates out of Pakistan. In fact, al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia has been criticized in the past by the operational director of the real al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, for its wanton carnage directed at Muslims. Bush's lie, which assumes a lack of knowledge on the part of the American people, was compounded by an outrageous bit of spin: "We just started [the surge]," the President said. General David Petraeus "got all the troops there a couple of weeks ago." In fact, Operation Fardh al-Qanoon, the military effort to secure Baghdad, has been going on since February.
We have had more than four years of a President who seems to have such a low opinion of the public that he can't bear to tell it the truth about a war gone sour. Which is why the Democrats in Congress have taken to proposing increasingly radical, if futile measures to begin the end of the war ... and which is why the most sober, prominent Republicans imaginable-- Senators like Dick Lugar and Pete Domenici--have joined the Democrats in calling for a change in policy. Indeed, the President's tragic addiction to broad-brush propaganda prevented him from telling his Cleveland audience the one bit of good news emanating from Iraq in recent months--that the Iraqi version of al-Qaeda (AQI is the military acronym) is being rejected by its Sunni hosts across the country; that recent U.S. military operations have forced AQI from some of its most important sanctuaries, like the city of Baqubah; that many al-Qaeda operatives are on the run; that even horrific explosions, like the bomb that killed more than 150 in the obscure town of Amerli, north of Baqubah, are a perverse form of good news. A bomb that size was probably intended for downtown Baghdad but couldn't reach its destination because U.S. forces have blocked the routes south.
The reason Bush didn't tout this success is byzantine: If al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia is on the run, if we have "turned a corner" against al-Qaeda, as a senior Administration official told me, then an argument can be made that it is time to begin planning our departure. In fact, the departure is already being planned--in two places. There is the plan being devised by General Petraeus' staff in Iraq, which envisions a slow draw-down, paced by the Army's troop-rotation schedule; force levels would begin to ebb in March 2008 and reach pre-surge levels six months later. And there is more radical planning in the Pentagon, which would halve the current troop levels in a year. The growing friction between Petraeus and the Pentagon brass, with the generals desperate to save their Army before it breaks, will be a story to watch in the next few months.
"When did July become so important?" a senior Administration official asked, rhetorically. "I thought we were going to have this discussion about a change of strategy in September." That hints at a new "product" to be introduced in the fall, as Andrew Card famously described a previous Iraq-strategy launch six autumns ago, and my guess is that the President is planning to support a draw-down akin to the one being devised by the Petraeus staff. But Bush is a stubborn man. He doesn't want to appear to be forced into a draw-down, and especially not by members of his own party. He wants to be able to make his announcement after Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker testify in September to the positive al-Qaeda developments. "We could actually use the announcement of a long draw-down," an Administration official told me. "Something that won't seem like we're cutting and running but will let the Iraqis know that we're leaving and they have to get serious about running their country."
And so the President won't budge for now on Iraq. And the Democrats won't be able to summon the 67 votes necessary to pass a timetable for withdrawal. Even the old bull Republicans who have "abandoned" the President aren't prepared to vote with the Democrats just yet. The most interesting vote in the next few weeks will be on a bipartisan amendment, sponsored by Democrat Ken Salazar of Colorado and Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, that would enshrine the findings of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group as national policy. One of those findings calls for the withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops from Iraq by March 2008, but the wording is sufficiently muzzy--the President can change policy "subject to unexpected developments," Alexander told me--so that Bush can pretty much ignore it at will. Still, there is a possibility that the amendment will succeed as an anodyne bipartisan plea for a change of strategy, which would be an oddly benign, if ineffectual development. "It's a sleeper amendment," Alexander said. "It's there for Senators who are tired of voting for futile partisan resolutions that fail."
Salazar told me he may well vote for the primary Democratic amendment--sponsored by Carl Levin and Jack Reed--which would set a withdrawal timetable, and then vote for his own amendment as a fallback position when Levin-Reed fails. "You may be surprised by how many Democrats vote for Levin-Reed, then support our amendment," he said.