Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.” That was former White House chief of staff Andy Card in the summer of 2002, talking about the plan to market the Iraq war that fall. And so it began that September, with a speech by President Bush to the United Nations the day after the first anniversary of 9/11, using the awful tragedy to try to drum up global support for an attack on Iraq.
Five years later it’s déjà vu all over again, as the Bush administration rolls out a new marketing plan to sell the Iraq war this September, with its central event, Gen. David Petraeus’ address to Congress, unbelievably scheduled for the sixth anniversary of 9/11. As I speculated back in May, the centerpiece of the new plan seems to be “Operation Iraqi Neighborhood Watch,” an effort to build on the success the military has allegedly had working with tribal sheiks in al-Anbar province. The most unbelievable thing is, the Bush September rollout plan could work again.
President Bush kicked off his P.R. surge with an eight-hour trip to a military base in Anbar on Monday. “There is no substitute for sitting down, looking [Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki] in the eye and having a conversation with him,” National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley told reporters. Yes, you’ve heard that before, too: When Bush made a surprise Baghdad visit in June 2006, it was because he wanted to look al-Maliki in the eye. And he did: “I’ve come not only to look you in the eye,” Bush told the embattled prime minister, “I’ve also come to tell you that when America gives its word, it keeps its word.”
Of course, a few things have changed since then: Bush didn’t fly into Baghdad this time; presumably it’s too dangerous (especially after visiting Congress members were shot at just last week). Another difference: A few months after Bush’s last trip, Hadley described al-Maliki as either dishonest or incompetent in a notorious November 2006 memo, and since then top GOP allies have lobbied to replace him with former Prime Minister and CIA friend Ayad Allawi.
As for America keeping its word: Last time we checked, our current commitment was predicated on the al-Maliki government making progress on 18 benchmarks having to do with ethnic reconciliation, violence reduction, governance and oil revenue sharing; today’s report from the Government Accounting Office says they made progress on seven of those 18 goals (although last week’s draft GAO report said they only advanced on three of 18; we’ll be going up shortly with a close look at the difference between the draft and the final report). But there seem to be no consequences for whiffing on at least 11 of the 18 benchmarks.
It’s been clear for some time that the Bush administration was going to define success downward, when it came to the surge. The really big new idea the White House is marketing this September is its progress working with — and arming — Sunni tribal leaders and certain Shiite sectarian groups opposed to Muktada al-Sadr. You can see the shift most clearly in David Brooks’ Monday column. “The surge is failing,” Brooks declares — but the strategy of arming and supporting various sectarian leaders just might work. Brooks admits that in some places, these “local groups” look like “mafia families struggl[ing] to impose order on their local turf,” and semi-covers his hindquarters by asking the “crucial question,” in his words: “Do these tribes represent proto-local governments, or are they simply regional bands arming themselves in anticipation of a cataclysmic civil war?”
Is there really debate about the answer to that question? Today comes news that the Kurds are complaining that Iran — and perhaps Turkey — is attacking Kurdish nationalists inside the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan. (Watch for the administration to ignore the claims about Turkey and seize on those about Iran.) Last week Turkey alleged it had discovered that U.S. weapons, presumably supplied to the Iraqi army, were arming Kurdish rebels inside Turkey’s borders. More arms to more splinter groups — can that really be a plan that leads to peace? Only if you’re as cynical as this administration is, and you’re trying to play out the clock and hand this mess to your successor, while trying to paint what’s going on in Iraq as some kind of victory. And maybe it is, in a surreal way: If you back every side in a multiethnic civil war, you’re guaranteed to win!
Is there any chance that Democrats and rumored Republican war opponents will challenge Bush’s constant redefinition of success in Iraq, and demand a timetable for withdrawal? We’ll keep watching. Look for Mark Benjamin’s reporting on the administration’s new “bottom-up” Iraq strategy later today on Salon.