Handing off the quagmire
Cartoon courtesy Steve
Canaan, special to Fog City Journal
February 4, 2007
"Al-Qaida knows the surge is working. They no longer
have a safe haven in Anbar province; they're on the run."
-- President George Bush, speaking
in Las Vegas
"The new strategy clearly is succeeding. The surge
is working. The forces of freedom are winning."
-- Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking
in Charlotte, North Carolina
Take up the lotus position and chant, "The surge is working.
The surge is working. The surge is working. The surge is working..."
until your mind is clear of any other thoughts. This is how you
reach war monger enlightenment. Michael Duffy of TIME magazine
seems like a hawk bodhisattva. When writing about how well things
are going in Iraq, the article title isn't "Why the Surge
is Working," it's "Why
the Surge Worked." The war in Iraq is, apparently, over.
Peace reigns and the only reason we still have troops there is
that it's really, really nice and they don't want to leave.
Actually, he doesn't go quite that far. In fact, reading through
the piece, you get the feeling that the title was forced on him
by his editor. He writes of progress coming "slowly, unevenlyand
only with a lot of well-armed help." An Iraqi shopkeeper
tells him, "Things are improving slightly. But not as much
as we hoped." He warns -- contrary to the title -- that the
triumphalism of Republican presidential candidates may be a tiny
One year and 937 U.S. fatalities later, the surge is a fragile
and limited success, an operation that has helped stabilize the
capital and its surroundings but has yet to spark the political
gains that could set the stage for a larger American withdrawal.
As a result of improving security in Iraq, the war no longer
is the most pressing issue in the presidential campaign, having
been supplanted by the faltering U.S. economy. Voters still oppose
the war by nearly 2 to 1, but Democrats sense the issue could
be less galvanizing as troops begin to return home.
Republicans who supported the surge, like Arizona Senator John
McCain, have been trying out tiny victory laps lately, but because
the hard-won stability could reverse itself, both parties are
proceeding carefully. Interviews with top officials in Baghdad
and Washington and on-the-ground assessments by Time reporters
in Iraq reveal why the surge has produced real gains -- but also
why the war still has the capacity to cause collateral damage
half a world away.
The surge is working in the same sense that you are after you
punch in at work -- you're working only so long as you're there.
Once you go home, you aren't working anymore.
Senior U.S. military commanders here say they want to freeze
troop reductions starting this summer for at least a month,
making it more likely that the next administration will inherit
as many troops in Iraq as there were before President Bush announced
a "surge" of forces a year ago.
There are about 155,000 U.S. troops in Iraq now, with about
5,000 leaving every month; the proposed freeze would go into
effect in July, when troops levels reach around 130,000. Although
violence is dropping in Iraq, commanders say they want to halt
withdrawals to assess whether they can control the situation
with fewer troops.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, will
probably argue for what the military calls an operational "pause"
at his next round of congressional testimony, expected in early
April, another senior U.S. military official here said. Defense
Secretary Robert M. Gates and top military officers have said
they would like to see continued withdrawals throughout this
year, but Bush has indicated he is likely to be guided by Petraeus's
The surge is a success in the sense that it's absolutely, positively
certain to make the occupation of Iraq someone else's problem.
Forgive an analogy from a nearly snowbound northerner, but this
is like a drunk getting your car stuck in a snow bank, walking
away from it, and telling you, "I got things this far, you
take it from here."
This is Bush's idea of that "personal responsibility"
thing Republicans are always talking about -- when you really
screw things up royally, you personally hand off your mess to
someone else. Then it's not your problem anymore. In fact, Bush
seems hellbent on sticking someone with his mess for a long, long
George Bush has resumed his practice of disregarding portions
of new laws, quietly reserving the right to build permanent
military bases in Iraq, keep Congress in the dark on spying
activity and block two accountability measures aimed at private
security firms accused of wartime abuses.
As he signed a defence bill into law yesterday, Bush quietly
added a "signing statement" that asserts his ability
to ignore several parts of the measure. The signing statement
is not a new tactic for Bush -- he has issued hundreds during
seven years in office, many more than his predecessors -- but
Democrats now are planning restraints on the presidential prerogative.
Way to get right on that, Congress. By sitting on your hands,
you've let Bush gain much more power than a lame duck should have.
Now, he's planning on permanent bases in Iraq -- in short, attempting
to force the next president to continue his stupid, stupid occupation.
The law Bush added his statement to was a bill expressly forbidding
permanent bases and control of Iraqi oil. Bush is using his signing
statement -- which is constitutional BS -- to interpret the law
as meaning exactly the opposite of what it clearly states. Once
again, President Bush declares himself above the law and claims
the dictatorial power to rule by proclamation. The legal argument
is completely insane, since it requires you to assume that the
founders meant for Congress to be a pretense of democracy.
So much for "strict constructionism."
About the only upside to all of this is that it signals that
Bush believes the next president will pull troops out of Iraq
at the first opportunity. And, since both GOP frontrunners are
committed to staying in Iraq until the sun burns out, that means
that he believes the next Commander in Chief will be a Democrat.
Yay for that, at least.
And Bush's attempt to force the hand of the next command in chief
is undercut by his own arguments. If Congress has absolutely no
say in a war prosecuted by the Executive, you've got to assume
that the Executive isn't bound by the actions of the previous
Executive. There's nothing to stop President Obama or Clinton
from converting these bases to Supercenters and selling them to
By claiming that the President is a Dictator in matters of war,
Bush allows the next resident of the White House to easily undo
anything he tries to rope them into.
In the end, Bush's surge is working in the sense that it reduces
everything to a slow burn until he leaves office. It's not a plan
for victory, because it was never meant to be. It's more like
putting a video game on pause -- you can't win, you can't lose,
because you're not actually doing anything.
Meanwhile, Iraq is a police state -- which is ironic, since the
only remaining justification for the war is that Saddam kept Iraqis
in a police state. I'm not really sure how this can be defined
The surge isn't working in any way we'd been led to expect.
The fact that military commanders in Iraq call for the drawdown
to stop proves that. It's not a fix, it's a patch -- and Bush
is hoping that patch holds until he's safely out of town.
Terry Canaan is a former political fundraiser living and writing
in Wisconsin. He publishes the blog "Griper