Bush in Anbar

I just watched a video of Bush speaking from the Anbar province on his surprise visit to Iraq. I am no expert on what is happening on the ground in Iraq, but from what I have been reading there has been tremendous progress in stabilizing this once chaotic region. The points that are made as to the cause of the stability are: 1) Al Qaeda overplayed their hand in the amount of violence they used to gain influence in the region, causing militias and tribal leaders to oppose them, and 2) The U.S. is working with these tribal and militia leaders, who originally opposed the U.S. presence, in pushing out Al Qaeda and brining stability to Anbar.

This is of course a very positive outcome, but it strikes me that the U.S. did this without a real role for the central government of Iraq. Bush in his talk mentioned funds coming to Anbar from the Maliki government, but I would bet this is at the direction of the U.S. So that means that the greatest success of the U.S. occupation is due to working to unelected, factional leaders rather than an elected government. Meanwhile, the elected government that we are supposedly waiting on to accomplish something is basically spending its time defending itself against a barrage of rhetorical attacks. So — is the goal right now stability or having an elected government, whether it is functional or not?

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Harry Reid, Iraq, and the Art of the Possible

There has been a lot of criticism of Harry Reid (D-NV) since the Washington Post reported about an interview they had with him regarding the upcoming debates over Iraq in Congress — however it seems to me that Reid is just taking an honest view of the legislative reality regarding possible success in Congress. The question for progressives is to ask whether it is more important to stay principled and accept little less than timelines for withdrawal, or should we allow Reid and Pelosi to explore the Art of the Possible.

Reid’s main points in the interview accept the current political environment:

1. The demand for a firm withdrawal deadline was an obstacle to gaining GOP votes for limitations on the war.
2. While he still supports withdrawal as soon as possible, and he has no regrets about his uncompromising strategy in july, in his view, now is the time to work with the Republicans to find possible solutions.
3. To this end, Reid is encouraging”new coalitions to develop” that result in more bipartisan cooperation.

This seems to be a sensible calculation. Even with the expected return of Tim Johnson (D-SD), and adding the four Republicans who supported withdrawal in July, we are talking about 54 votes, which in the Senate just doesn’t get you t the win. At 54 votes the Democrats are 6 short of ending a filibuster and 13 short of overcoming a veto (a barrier which is even harder to overcome in the House).

The Democrats have a choice: They can either insist on the full withdrawal plus timeline/deadline option in an “all or nothing” strategy and thus keep making what, in the end, will be merely symbolic votes; or, they can try to fashion a compromise with moderate and discouraged Republicans that will at least accomplish something.

The goal now should be to achieve the most possible in terms of ending U.S. involvement in Iraq and at least begin to unwind our presence there, and do it with the greatest number of votes possible to put more pressure on the Bush Administration. That will probably mean not focusing on votes for immediate withdrawal or hard timelines. But the reality is that real withdrawal probably will not begin until a Democrat enters the Oval office in January, 2009 — so until then, Reid and Pelosi have to focus on the Art of the Possible.

The basic elements of the possible are already in Harry Reid’s mind. He is going to bring back Jim Webb’s (D-VA) bill that mandates that soldier’s that return home after tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan must have stays at home equal to the length of their deployment. He is working with Ken Salazar (D-CO) to bring up his bill, co-sponsored with Lamar Alexander (R-TN), that would implement the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, but Reid is trying to get them to add some sort of timeline for at least the beginning of withdrawal. Armed Forces Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) is going to get the Senate to vote on his and Jack Reed’s proposal to begin withdrawal within 120 days. In a compromise they are considering removing the April 30th deadline for the withdrawal’s completion.

The idea is to gain the votes of Republicans who want to show that they don’t support Bush’s policies, but are recalcitrant to opposing him completely. If it is possible to pick up Republicans such as John Warner (R-VA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN), Republicans who have expressed concerns about the President’s policies, but who won’t, for whatever reasons. won’t support a full pullout at this time.

However, accepting the Art of the Possible does not mean the Democrats just give in to the Republicans and the White House. The $50 billion that the President is expected to request from Congress for Iraq and Afghanistan is where the Democrats need to draw their line in the sand. The Democrats need to question the rationale for this request, looking into not just the explanation of the need for the funds, but how previous spending for these operations has been used, wasted and abused. There has been enough waste, corruption and unaccounted spending in Iraq, along with what appears to be outright fraud by some contractors (Yes we mean Halliburton) that it could be argued that if previous funds had been spent wisely and as promised, this $50 billion would not be needed right now. Maybe the contractors who have benefitted from the war should fund the next phase of it.

In any case, the $50 billion supplemental spending request by the Bush Administration should be used as the key for the Democrats to get as far as they can in terms of limiting the war and bringing at least some troops back to the U.S. To do this, they may need to compromise with some moderate Republicans in order to gain at least some leverage — but this is just understanding that getting some of what you want is sometimes better than getting nothing and standing on principle alone.

I do have a concept as to how to link Iraq appropriations with limiting U.S. involvement — I call it “Robust Withdrawal” — that I will be explaining in future posts. I hope that thinking outside the box in this debate won’t be considered folding to the White House’s hand.

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Juan Cole on Benchmarks:

In his blog Informed Comment, Middle East expert Juan Cole makes some insightful observations about the Iraq Benchmarks and the Debate here in Washington:

I personally find the controversy about Iraq in Washington to be bizarre. Are they really arguing about whether the situation is improving? I mean, you have the Night of the Living Dead over there. People lack potable water, cholera has broken out even in the good areas, a third of people are hungry, a doubling of the internally displaced to at least 1.1 million, and a million pilgrims dispersed just this week by militia infighting in a supposedly safe all-Shiite area. The government has all but collapsed, with even the formerly cooperative sections of the Sunni Arab political class withdrawing in a snit (much less more Sunni Arabs being brought in from the cold). The parliament hasn’t actually passed any legislation to speak of and often cannot get a quorum. Corruption is endemic. The weapons we give the Iraqi army are often sold off to the insurgency. Some of our development aid goes to them, too.

Cole goes on to show that troop deaths have risen and not fallen and that the Bush Administration must think that Americans are “brain dead” if they believe that this can be sold to the Amwerican Public. See his whole entry for a look at his views on the ridiculousness of the debate over benchmarks.

His points also made me think that the Administration, the Congress and the GAO seem to treat all of the 18 benchmarks equally, but there are some that are more imortant than others, such as the level of violence and the provision of basic services. Maybe we need a benchmark ranking to go along with the evaluation.

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White House Pushback against GAO Report

So the GAO Report on Iraqi Benchmarks appears to still be a kind of “draft.” Since the report in this form was released to the Pentagon and State Department, as well as leaked to various media sources earlier this week, both Departments have offered “helpful” corrections. Dana Perino made an interesting argument:

“The President must report on whether or not the Iraqis are making significant progress towards achieving the benchmarks in Iraq,” deputy spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters.

“The GAO … is asked by Congress to say whether or not they have met them,” she said, adding that the “bar was set so high” it was all but impossible for Iraqis to meet the standards.

So is the problem one of two different standards: Progress towards goals vs whether goals have been met? The problem I have with the Administration’s interpretation is twofold: First, the GAO report does have a “Mixed Results” category that should take into account when there is progress but a goal has not been met. Only two benchmarks fall under this grade in the GAO report. Second — the Iraqi government and this Administration have been working on stabilizing Iraq for FOUR YEARS. They should be on a short leash, especially when the Bush Administration requests another $50 billion.

There must be some people at the GAO who are going to be working during their Labor Day weekend putting the final touches on the report. What to look for next Tuesday: Whether any of the GAO grades have changed after the helpful corrections by the White House.

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Senators’ plane gets shot at… is this progress?

So you may have heard that a plane carrying Republican Senators Richard Shelby (R-AL), James Inhofe (R-OK), and Mel Martinez (R-FL) in addition to Representative Bud Cramer (D-AL) was fired upon as they were leaving Iraq. Thankfully no shots hit the plane and after some evasive maneuvers, the aircraft cleared the area safely. But this is my question — next week when the debate over Iraq begins again in Congress, will these members of Congress be touting the amazing success of the surge in Iraq? It seems to me having a plane carrying a congressional delegation on it getting fired upon is not exactly “progress,” but we shall see.

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GAO Iraq Benchmarks Report — Is it a Fair Measure?

So the battle between the Bush Administration and Congress over the current GAO Benchmarks report is taking shape. While us mere mortals will have to wait until next week to study the text, some news outlets have gotten a preview, and the Washington Post has developed a chart comparing the White House version of progress with the GAO’s version, as copied below:

A Less Favorable Review

By Seth Hamblin, The Washington Post – August 30, 2007

So of the 18 Benchmarks the GAO tracked, there are 3 “Satisfactory” Grades, 2 with “Mixed” results and the rest are basically failures. Not surprisingly, when you compare this to the White House’s July Report, it is rather more pessimistic. There are three areas in which the Administration claims that there has been satisfactory progress, but where the GAO determines that developments have been unstaisfactory: Reviewing Changes to the Iraqi Constitution; Providing three trained and ready brigades to support Baghdad operations; and, Ensuring the Baghdad Security Plan will not provide a haven for outlaws, regardless of sectarian or political affiliation. We will have to wait until next week to get the full GAO description of their analysis of the benchmarks, but let’s look at the White House view of one of these benchmarks, where three trained Iraqi brigades are assisting in Baghdad:

Assessment: The Government of Iraq has made satisfactory progress toward providing three trained and ready Iraqi brigades to support Baghdad operations. While manning levels for the deployed Iraqi units continue to be of concern, the Iraqi Government has provided the equivalent of three additional brigades to Baghdad and has made provisions to sustain this level of effort and to address manning issues ‑‑ in addition to steadily increasing the strengths of Iraqi units already deployed in Baghdad. The progress toward this benchmark has been satisfactory, and the effect is satisfactory in that the three brigades are operating in support of Baghdad operations.

I will be interested in comparing this particular assessment with the GAO’s description when the report is released to the public. Just considering the problems of training and putting together Iraqi forces, the Administration’s judgement seems rather optimistic at this point.

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Line in the Sand

Wednesday’s Washington Post and other sources are reporting that the Bush Administration is expected to request an additional $50 billion from Congress for the war in Iraq. The Post article by Thomas Ricks points out that this request is in addition to the $460 billion 2008 Defense Budget currently in the appropriations process, and the $147 billion supplemental spending bill to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the details of the request have yet to come out, the news of the request demonstrates that the Bush Administration has no fear of the Democrats, who control Congress, doing anything about stopping funding or starting to end US involvement in the war.

The month of September is critical in the debate to end US involvement in Iraq. Over the next 5 weeks: 1) The GAO Report on the Iraqi benchmarks is due September 1st, though that is a Saturday so most attention will come to it over next week. 2) The White House version of the Patraeus report will be released around September 15th. While a snow job is expected to some degree, the hearings by General Patraeus before the House and Senate Armed Services Committee should reveal some information about whether the surge is having an impact that is greater than tampering down violence in areas where US troops are patrolling in greater numbers. The key element in my mind is whether training of Iraqi security forces is actually moving forward at a reasonable pace. 3) The Defense Appropriations Bill — this is the bill that must pass at some point in the next couple of months. The Democrats have the opportunity to use this bill as a vehicle to begin a drawdown of troops, as well as insert other requirements for the Administration to follow that would begin to lower US involvement in Iraq.

These events mean that Iraq will be part of the congressional debate for the next few weeks — and it means that we are at a critical juncture in implementing Iraq policy — if it could be called that. This is where the Dmeocrats must draw a line in the sand. Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid has promised No More Blank Checks for the Administration when it comes to Iraq, but his aquiescence on extending the no-review FISA policy does not give me much faith in his resolve on these issues.

We must now draw a Line in the Sand — it is THIS request that the Dmeocrats must stand against. This White House has been so incompetent in its administration of the occupation and in countering the insurgency that, even if someone supported the war in the past, it should be clear that this White House does not deserve more funds. This is NOT about the troops — funds can be moved to make certain that they are getting the supplies they need… This is about: Reports that over 100,000 arms delivered by the US are unaccounted for; that there is no real Iraqi security force that could actually protect anything — despite 5 years of supposed training; that Al Qaeda is as strong now as it was on September 11th, 2001; that the refugee crisis in neighboring countries is growing more unsustainable by the day and the US is hardly assisting; that Iran has become more powerful due to US involvement in Iraq; that the US military is stretched thin both in terms of manpower and its ability to respond to crises in other parts of the world; that the disbandment of the Iraqi military and De-Baathification that took place early on exacerbated the so-called insurgency; that the US is now seen negatively by the vast majority of Iraqis who don’t accept the occupation; that US troops are now in the middle of a Civil War when the invasion was supposed to be about Saddam Hussein; that the government in Iraq is not only incompetent but seems to be actively opposing the goals leading to stability that have been set forth.

The Bush Administration has not in any way proven that the funds that are given to them are spent either wisely or in the best interests of the citizens of the United States. If the Democrats roll over in September and October and give the White House all that they are requesting, then it proves that there is no true oversight by Congress, and at least in terms of Iraq, the Democratic takeover was for naught.

I have created this blog to follow the Iraq debate in Washington over the next few months. I want to make sure that we are all informed as to what the shape of the debate is, what the facts appear to be, and what the Democrats are proposing. Please feel free to comment and tell us what you think is important, articles and documents of note, and events that you think are noteworthy. This request is our Line in the Sand — we must hold the feet of Members of Congress to the fire.

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