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Analysis: Bush's Plan for Iraq

Bush to Send More Than 20,000 Troops to Iraq

Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Associate Editor
Thursday, January 11, 2007; 10:00 AM


Washington Post Associate Editor Robert G. Kaiser was online Thursday, Jan. 11, at 10 a.m. ET to offer analysis and reaction to President Bush's television address to the nation regarding his plan for the war in Iraq.

A transcript follows.


What happens when if we "fail": We keep hearing "defeat in Iraq is not an option." That's baloney, it's always an option whether we like it or not. Given that the President has been wrong about why we needed to go into Iraq and what would happen after we did, why should we believe him when he says that if we fail, it'll be terrible for our reputation because Iraq will become an al-Qaeda stronghold? For one thing, al-Qaeda is a Sunni terrorist organization. Why would Shiite-dominated Iraq do that?

Robert G. Kaiser: Greetings to all. Lots of questions this morning, so I'll get right to it.

And this is a good place to start. The President did not repeat that "failure is not an option" last night, perhaps because of a realization that saying it doesn't make it so. Of course this questioner is correct: it is not entirely in our hands whether we fail or succeed.

It seems to me that speculation about what an Iraq without the big U.S. Army present will be like, will do, etc., is pretty dreamy stuff right now. Not even Iraqis can answer the questions, so when I hear another American politician predicting with confidence what will come next, I am skeptical.

The biggest danger in Iraq, it seems to me, is a failed state in which large parts of the country are simply anarchic. That would be an invitation to bad guys. It is one of the many horribles we can contemplate, if not yet predict with any confidence.


Gaithersburg, MD: The depth of public opposition to the "surge" can be seen from the fact that Bush is campaigning for it by appearing on an Army base in front of the troops. Rove couldn't generate a flag waving crowd chanting for victory in Topeka or Yazoo City.

Robert G. Kaiser: I think this is a good and important point. The American people have made up their minds about Iraq. I saw this happen a generation ago with the Vietnam war. Indeed, I asked Jon Cohen, our polling director, for some comparisons between opinion on Vietnam and on Iraq, and the parallels are quite eerie. Sentiment against the war in Iraq today is very similar to what it was in Vietnam in 1971 or so. Bush is not going to turn around opinion here; I think that is just impossible now. So he is off to Ft. Benning this morning. Good point, Gaithersburg.


Columbus, Ohio: Do we have a clear definition of what "victory" in Iraq means?

Based on news reports and former military general interviews, the list of options we have there are all "lose- lose", so why is this administration still saying we can "win" something?

Robert G. Kaiser: I am very sympathetic to this question. Obviously, it would be just grand if a stable, democratic, self-reliant Iraq emerged from all of this. Who would bet five dollars on that outcome today?

Is the president simply trying to avoid defeat or humiliation on his watch, leaving the real outcome to his successor? I am not by nature a cynical person; I genuinely don't like the thought that this might be true; can someone out there talk me out of this conclusion? Welcome any thoughtful answer...


Baltimore, Md.: The veiled threat against Syria and Iran seems very significant. Is he serious about bringing the conflict to another level?

Robert G. Kaiser: This of course is the $64 question. My own analysis is that escalating the war to other countries now would bring on a constitutional crisis of large proportions in this country. There would be virtually no support for such an adventure. In my lifetime, clear and strong national sentiment has produced concrete consequences: Lyndon Johnson gave up on Vietnam, and on the presidency, in the face of overwhelming public sentiment against it and him, for example. But this president is really stubborn.


Washington, D.C.: A poll by the Pew Charitable Trusts released on January 4 found that 50 percent of Americans want the troops home "as soon as possible." When 50 percent of America wants peace, why does Washington just debate more vs. the same instead of exiting now versus later? If this is an example of republican democracy, then let's recognize it as such. We so often complain that our leaders just follow the polls, but when it comes to war, our elected officials will not be swayed by the silly whims of the public. It takes courage to neglect 50 percent of the voting public, especially just 10 weeks after an election!

Robert G. Kaiser: See my previous answer. Thanks for posting.


What's next?: Robert:

I don't have the transcript, but during an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer yesterday, Mary Matalin made it clear that the first step in cleaning up Baghdad will be to go after the Sunnis. I believe she even said "they started it." Is there a chance that this "surge" will still largely focus more on the Sunnis and not as much on al-Sadr or the Shiites?

Robert G. Kaiser: If Mary Matalin is an expert on Iraq, then I should be pitching for the Yankees.


Silver Spring, Md.: This maybe a remedial question, but can Bush order more troops to Iraq without Senate approval?

Robert G. Kaiser: Yes. But there is a huge fight coming over the $100 billion "supplemental" appropriations bill the administration must submit soon to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I am impressed by the clever Democratic gambit of proposing, as early as next week, a non-binding resolution of disapproval of this "surge". A number of Republicans will vote for it. Bush will be in a political corner. Then the supplemental will land on the Hill. Stay tuned.

If you haven't already read it, take a look at this morning's good story by Dan Balz and Jonathan Weissman, which I hope we can link to here.


washingtonpost.com: Response from the Hill: Democrats Aim to Block Funds for Plan ( Post, Jan. 11)


Washington DC: I am sorry to say, but it looks like our enemies are right and we have lost our will to see things out. Whether is was Vietnam, Lebanon, Black Hawk Down, First Gulf War, or now Americans are too rich and spoiled to do the right thing, which in this case is to stay a bit longer to help stabilize the country. Our enemies are right, we see a few horrible pictures and TV and take a few causalities and we runs card. Remember WWII? We lost how many people, 250K? We cannot forget that we are the greatest country on earth because we have always sacrificed ourselves for the freedom of others. Countries like France and Germany, who are currently enjoying the freedom we gave them, have forgotten this and that is why their economies are destroyed on their politics irrelevant.

Should we pull out now like Kennedy wants .just like he wanted us out of all of Southeast Asia and look what happened? Pol Pot, killing fields, 2 million murdered? We cant let the liberals make us run and we cant fight a war just because of the TV photos. We have lost our will to fight and see things through and be tough. Its sad

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this. It gives me a chance to make a point I will be elaborating on in an article for this Sunday's Outlook section. I am not going to argue with your assertion that we are rich and spoiled, but I want you to think about your implied point that this explains our inability to prevail in situations like Vietnam and Iraq. I think the problem is more in our hubris: our presumption that American power, American intervention, American perseverance can make countries like these turn out the way we want them to. What foreign power could shape an outcome in America? Why do we consider ourselves so omnipotent? Why should a country whose language few of us speak, whose culture and history we do not know, respond to our "solutions" for their problems? To me this is the great American weakness, not the fact that we are rich or the possibility that we are spoiled.


Brooklyn, N.Y.: How much time do you think Bush has to implement and execute this new "strategy?" Has he now successfully given himself some breathing space and kicked the can down the road to the next president? Should the public dialog now focus primarily on what the U.S. should be doing in Iraq after January 20, 2009? Thank you.

Robert G. Kaiser: And thank you. No, this is not going to get Bush to 2009. Events in Iraq are well beyond our control now, I think.

I am however interested in the latest White House tactic, which might be called "limited candor." My colleague Peter Baker wrote a really fine piece about that this morning, which I hope we can link to here.


NYC:"The biggest danger in Iraq, it seems to me, is a failed state in which large parts of the country are simply anarchic. That would be an invitation to bad guys." Which pretty well describes the present situation. In other words, things cannot get worse unless we stay.

Robert G. Kaiser: Alas, it can be a lot worse than it is now. We ought not kid ourselves about that. If Colin Powell is right to call the present situation a civil war, and personally I can't argue with him, it's still a contained civil war. The killing is awful, but it could be a great deal worse.


Re: Mary Matalin: True, she's no expert, but she has been and still is a mouthpiece for Dick Cheney. I simply wonder in this case if she's speaking for him.

Robert G. Kaiser: Cheney's role has been shrouded in mystery for some weeks or months now. I don't understand it at all.


washingtonpost.com: Analysis: As He Touts a 'Way Forward,' Bush Admits Errors of the Past ( Post, Jan. 11)


Dallas Texas: The question is how many innocent Iraqis does the militaranticipate killing and injuring? A direct answer to thisquestion comes from President Bush's own speech last night. It is clear that President Bush knows in his heart that hisactions are WRONG and will cause unnecessary death andinjuries! For the first time ever, President Bush did NOT endhis speech by saying "God" Bless America or make a direct reference to "God"

Robert G. Kaiser: I was struck by that omission myself. I'm not prepared to embrace your explanation for it, but I'd love to have one. The statistics on Iraqi casualties are gruesome, and getting worse all the time. Today we learn of a group of Shia gunned down as they returned home from the Hajj to Mecca yesterday. Americans focus on our own casualties in war, but the deepest scars from this adventure are going to be in Iraq, obviously.


Please!:"We cant let the liberals make us run and we cant fight a war just because of the TV photos. We have lost our will to fight and see things through and be tough." I'm sorry but I despise comments like this. First, people like Chuck Hagel, Jack Murtha and Sam Brownback, to name just a few, aren't exactly liberal. Second, we don't want to run, we want to move our forces to positions where they can really fight terrorism and not serve as policemen and Peace Corps members. And third, there's a difference between tough and stupid. Beating your head against the wall for no purpose doesn't make you tough.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this. The negative reactions of Hagel and Brownback, a classic representative of Bush's "base" who is visiting Iraq right now and took time to issue a statement opposing the "surge," are I think extremely significant. Republicans are, I think, terrified of what is happening now and what can happen next. The GOP leaders of the Senate and House, McConnell and Boehner, tried to be good soldiers last night, but even their statement of support for Bush felt strained to me. And others aren't pretending. This may be Bush's biggest practical problem; if a significant portion of the Republicans in Congress conclude that it will be suicidal for them to stick with Bush on Iraq, then we will have a real donnybrook.


New York, N.Y.: Robert, is there any sense among W.H. staffers or members of Congress that the President is obsessed? I don't mean to be flip, and I don't mean a laser-like focus on Iraq, which would be understandable, but an unhealthy aversion to facing his own faults and weaknesses?


Robert G. Kaiser: There is lots of speculation now about what's really going on in Bush's head now. There is lots for the amateur shrinks go go on: the oedipal drama of the Iraq Study Group led by Bush Sr.'s guys offering the president a way out of the morass, and the president giving it the back of his hand is one tantalizing one. But I have never had a conversation with George W. Bush, have very little sense of the inner man, and will not get into psychological speculation here.

But I have been watching presidents since JFK, and I have never seen one who I felt was so isolated from what I understand to be reality as this guy is.


Washington, D.C.: Bush did make a reference to God -- I believe he said "the Author of Liberty" in the speech toward the end.

Robert G. Kaiser: that is correct, but it wasn't his usual reference.


Princeton, N.J.: Do you believe that policymakers who have participated in the decision making process relating to the Iraq war, for example, Secretary Rice, feel any sense of personal responsibility for the casualties sustained by U.S. troops, U.S. non-military personnel, and innocent Iraqi civilians?

Robert G. Kaiser: This is a really good question. What would it feel like to wake up in the morning and say to yourself, geez, I may have been the co-author of one of the greatest screw-ups in American history? No fun, I bet.

I think Rice's place in history, once so promising, is now doomed to be pretty grim. Heard anyone talking about her as a presidential candidate lately? Nor have I.

But I can't answer your question.


Washington, D.C.: The critique of the surge combined with the analysis by Robert Novak today of the problems at the State Department point to what seems more and more like a failed presidency. If the surge fails in six months, will we see impeachment proceedings or is it "too late" for that now?

Robert G. Kaiser: Impeachment isn't for failing, it's for "high crimes and misdemeanors." I don't expect to see it.


"Cynical" viewpoint: I don't think Bush is running out the clock, but instead, is choosing between horrible options that this war has created: Stay and hope that the power struggle that was capped by Saddam Hussein will somehow exhaust itself (how?), or go, and leave a broken state in an unstable region. The latter option leaves the Saudis, Kuwait, Egypt, etc., less dependant upon the U.S. for security. We are now in a geopolitical pincer.

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for the posting.


Wilmington, NC:" If Mary Matalin is an expert on Iraq, then I should be pitching for the Yankees."

Wiki: The White House Iraq Group...was set up in August 2002 by White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and chaired by Karl Rove to coordinate all the executive branch elements in the run-up to the war in Iraq...

The members of the White House Iraq Group include: -8]-9]

- Karl Rove

- Karen Hughes

- Mary Matalin

- Andrew Card

- James R. Wilkinson

- Nicholas E. Calio

- Condoleezza Rice

- Stephen Hadley

- I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby

- Michael Gerson

It would seem those who guide our nation do consider her expert. Better rest that arm.

Robert G. Kaiser: Interesting. Thanks for the posting.

Now tell me, which of the people on this list are students of the history of Iraq? Speak Arabic? Have spent time in Iraq or the Middle East? Have lived in cultures other than our own for a prolonged period of time? Served in the military?

I fear the answer is, not one of them--though a couple of those guys may have been in the armed forces, not sure.

Our Iraq experts are not experts. Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith, Cheney and the others shoved the real experts aside very early in the process of planning the war. This is one explanation for what has followed, I fear.


Rockville, Md.: What does it say that Bush barely, if at all, mentioned the Iraq Study Group Report?

Robert G. Kaiser: You know, it would be pretty easy to argue that everything the White House has been doing for two months or so had been designed to change the subject from the Iraq Study Group report as a way of burying it. Personally I wonder if the very proud Jim Baker is going to keep his mouth closed about this now that the president has very explicitly rejected all of his advice.


Washington, D.C.: From the Gulf on Tonkin (64) to the fall of Saigon (75) to Iran-Contra (86) to the Persian Gulf War resolution (91), Kosovo (99) and now the Iraq War, Congress and the president have been at cross purposes with varying degrees of legality and illegality over money and war. What's the likelihood that if the Democratic Congress shut down Iraq, then Bush would take it to his Supreme Court and win a constitutional victory that could stand for a century or more?

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't think so. The Supremes usually avoid such issues, and in this case, there is an important wrinkle: The Constitution is very clear that Congress, not the president, has the power to declare war. This provision has been systematically ignored. Congress did NOT declare war in any of the cases on your list. I think this is a serious national problem that we have chosen to ignore. You wonder if, five years from now or sooner, this might become a subject of real debate.


Cleveland, Ohio: Thank you for taking my question.

I have a colleague who is in his early 40's and an officer in the reserve. He was recently called up to serve in Afghanistan. In speaking with him after the president's speech he is "happy" to be going to Afghanistan because he fews it as safer and the mission is more well defined then in Iraq.

Two questions; In your opinion his his view typical of the officer corps?

Does the fact that 40-year-olds who have not been on active duty in over a decade are being recalled speak to the fact that the armed service is at the breaking point?

Robert G. Kaiser: I suspect a lot of officers share your friend's view. I hope we'll be able to publish stories about the view from the troops, officers and enlisted, in the days ahead.

I'm quite sure the military is under too much stress right now. I was intrigued to hear as I left the house this morning that at a news conference in the White House today, Secretary Gates seemed to be doing a little rope-a-dope on the question of how soon the "surge" can happen, how long it will last, etc. I suspect he has to do this because the logistics are so complicated, and the prospect of calling up Guard and Reserve troops again, ahead of schedule, is so politically fraught.


Desert Hot Springs, Calif.: Very rich discussion this morning, thanks!

I'm really interested in exploring the theme "If we don't fight them there, and win, we will be fighting them here."

Just exactly what does this mean? Are the Iraqi insurgents/patriots going to chase us home in a flotilla? One of the last ads in the last presidential cycle was of the wolves circling. Are we now to believe this administration won't be able to protect the shores?

Robert G. Kaiser: As I've written before, I shudder when I hear this line, which was first widely heard during the Vietnam War. I remember vividly arguing with a Catholic priest who was a chaplain with the 4th Infantry Division in Vietnam's Central Highlands in 1970. I asked him what he told soldiers who came to him with moral qualms about what they were doing in Vietnam. "I tell them if they don't kill these bastards here, you'll have to do it in San Diego," the good father replied.

Neither the Vietcong nor the Sunnis of Anbar Province nor the Mahdi Army is likely to be landing in California, or Florida, any time soon. Personally I think this is an exasperating bit of demagoguery.

Of course we are, and will remain, vulnerable to future terrorist attacks; it is not in our power to prevent them in every situation, so they will happen again. But the argument that we are preventing them by fighting in Iraq seems to me quite hollow.


Catonsville, Md.: Is it true that the Bush administration is staying the course because there are so many lucrative contracts in the reconstruction efforts in Iraq (too good to leave)? As well as oil and pipeline contracts. Do they see this with Iran and other M.E. countries?

Robert G. Kaiser: I see no merit whatsoever to this argument.


Bentonville, Ark.: Last evening, David Gergen (who is hardly a limp wristed liberal)said that General Patraeus's counter insurgency strategy calls for a ratio of troops to insurgents be at a certain level. The president's plan to send more troops does not even come close to meeting this ratio. What is your take? Is this just delusional thinking and political posturing on the president's part?

Robert G. Kaiser: I think the spelling is Petraeus--but I could be wrong! It's an interesting fact that he oversaw the rewriting of the Army's manual on insurgency recently, and that the manual calls for troops levels far higher than the ones we will have in Iraq even if we get this "surge." It is also interesting to me that Petraeus has always been candid about the need to win wars of this kind politically, not militarily. He will have to be confirmed as a full general before taking on his new job, so his hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee should be fascinating.

Is Bush delusional? I wish I knew.

I hope we can link here to a terrific profile of Petraeus by Rick Atkinson that ran in last Sunday's Post.


Re Dana Milbank: I don't want to put you in the position of piling on a fellow W.P. reporter -- and I love Dana to pieces. But I really resented his piece today saying it was terrible how everyone was "prebutting" the President's speech before it was given.

Excuse me -- we all KNOW what he was going to say, because his have been doing nothing but leaking key points for weeks.

This is a dire situation with real world consequences for millions of people -- if Congress DIDN'T talk about it they'd be derelict.

washingtonpost.com: 'Prebutters' Ensure Debate Over 'Way Forward' Is Backward ( Post, Jan. 11)

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for posting. Who is this Milbank anyway?


washingtonpost.com: Iraq Will Be Petraeus's Knot to Untie ( Post, Jan. 7)


Hoboken, N.J.:

How will the president determine if the surge is successful enough to withdraw troops?

Robert G. Kaiser: This is a wise question. I cannot answer it.


Pittsburgh, PA: I was watching MSNBC last night and both Obermann and Matthews voiced alarm in the comments that Bush made concerning Iran and Syria. It kind of worried me, as well. It's almost as if he were setting up an eventual military conflict with these countries (particularly Iran). Did you have this sense as well?

Robert G. Kaiser: This will be the last question. It's been a great discussion, thanks to all for participating. We got more than 300 questions this morning, so obviously I couldn't get to most of them. I apologize.

The administration's true intentions about Iran are a legitimate issue for Congress and the country. Obviously they have been trying, since the Axis of Evil speech, to scare the Iranians. Just as obviously, this hasn't worked. So what next?

If Bush called in the Joint Chiefs tomorrow and proposed a new war with Iran, he'd face ferocious opposition. But if he proposed a bombing campaign? Why has an admiral, a Naval aviator, been named commander of Centcom, the military command responsible for the region? I'd like to know a lot more about this.

Thanks again for the great comments and questions

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