Beating off the rescue party

Just as he ignored accurate intelligence on Iraq, Bush will dismiss the Baker Commission's tough-minded proposals for salvaging his botched war.

By Sidney Blumenthal
Published December 7, 2006 12:25PM (EST)

The Iraq Study Group's report, released Wednesday, calling the situation in that country "grave and deteriorating" is hardly the first caution that President Bush has received. Two years ago, in December 2004, two frank face-to-face briefings were delivered to him from the field. In the first, the CIA station chief in Baghdad, who had filed an urgent memo the month before titled "The Expanding Insurgency in Iraq," was invited to the White House. The CIA officer had written that the insurgency was becoming more "self-confident" and in Sunni provinces "largely unchallenged." His report concluded: "The ease with which the insurgents move and exist in Baghdad and the Sunni heartland is bolstering their self-confidence further." He predicted that the United States would suffer more than 2,000 dead. Bush's reaction was to remark about the station chief, "What is he, some kind of defeatist?" Less than a week after the briefing, the officer was informed he was being reassigned from his post in Baghdad.

A few days after that briefing, on Dec. 17, 2004, Col. Derek Harvey, the Defense Intelligence Agency's senior intelligence officer for Iraq, was ushered into the Oval Office. Harvey, who had "conversed repeatedly with insurgents, and had developed the belief that the U.S. intelligence effort there was deeply flawed," according to Thomas Ricks in "Fiasco," briefed the president about the insurgency: "It's robust, it's well led, it's diverse. Absent some sort of reconciliation it's going to go on, and that risks a civil war. They have the means to fight this for a long time, and they have a different sense of time than we do, and are willing to fight. They have better intelligence than we do." Harvey also explained that foreign fighters, jihadists and al-Qaida were marginal elements. Ricks reported that after the briefing, Bush in his speeches still "would refer to setbacks only in vague terms."

But there is more to the story. A former high-ranking intelligence officer and close associate of Harvey's told me that during Harvey's briefing the president interrupted, turning to his aides to inquire, "Is this guy a Democrat?" Harvey's warnings, of course, were as thoroughly ignored as those of the CIA station chief.

In the weeks before the delivery of the Iraq Study Group (aka Baker-Hamilton Commission) report, Bush repeatedly insisted that al-Qaida was the principal foe in Iraq. Harvey, meanwhile, served as an advisor to the commission. After two years of Bush's contemptuous disdain for accurate intelligence reports, the commission dryly noted as a basic assumption: "No one can guarantee that any course of action in Iraq at this point will stop sectarian warfare, growing violence or a slide toward chaos. There is no magic formula to solve the problems of Iraq." Upon receipt of the report, Bush responded with perfunctory and dismissive courtesy, "We probably won't agree with every proposal ... We'll act on it in a timely fashion. Thank you very much." Good night, and good luck.

The commission's report, a bipartisan consensus, is a surprisingly tough-minded document, clear in its proposals and cold-eyed about the prospects in Iraq. Bush's disinclination to immediately implement the commission's recommendations reflects his persistent delusion in military victory. It also marks his ultimate rejection of his father's and father's men's efforts to salvage him from his wreckage.

Ever since the commission was announced, Bush's energy has been devoted to beating off the rescue party. "This business about a graceful exit just simply has no realism to it whatsoever," he said last week in anticipation of the commission's report, mocking the "realism" universally attributed to former Secretary of State James Baker. Then, on Monday, in an interview with Fox News, he held forth on his superior knowledge over his father's. "I love to talk to my dad about things between a father and a son, not policy," he said. "No," he replied, when asked if he consults his father for advice. "He understands what I know, that the level of information I have relative to the level of information most other people have, including himself, is significant and that he trusts me to make decisions ... I am the commander in chief." He is the "decider" and the decider decides that Father does not know best.

Since the midterm elections loss, Bush has conducted a foreign policy intended to counter the Baker-Hamilton Commission. In a sense, his entire foreign policy is a case study in reaction formation. From the start, he was determined to do everything opposite from what President Clinton had done. Bush abandoned the Middle East peace process, cast aside the negotiations with North Korea over its development of nuclear weapons, withdrew from the secret diplomacy with reform-minded Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, and brushed aside concerns about terrorism. Even before Sept. 11, Bush entertained scenarios about invading Iraq. In this he was operating in the shadow of his father, who refused to march to Baghdad in the Gulf War to topple Saddam Hussein. Bush envisioned himself succeeding where he believed his father had failed, thereby exceeding him.

As soon as Baker declared that staying the course was an unacceptable option, Bush furiously initiated rounds of diplomacy guaranteed to disqualify Baker's proposals before they were formally presented. He rejected talks with Iran. He suggested that Syria comply with his demands, which Baker would propose as the proper subject of negotiations, before there could be any direct relations. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was prompted to repackage long-rejected proposals to the Palestinians as the basis for peace talks there. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was sent to the region to engage in predetermined fruitless nondiplomacy in order to suggest the appearance of diplomacy. Thus Bush created a series of false events so that he might claim he had tried Baker's approach but that it had failed.

The leaking of a memo by National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley on the weakness of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to the New York Times by an unnamed administration official on the eve of President Bush's meeting with Maliki in Amman, Jordan, dramatized the fragility of the Iraqi situation. Hadley described a leader who gave lip service to national aspirations but was really a sectarian. "He impressed me as a leader who wanted to be strong but was having difficulty figuring out how to do so," Hadley wrote. "The information he receives is undoubtedly skewed by his small circle of [Islamic] Dawa [Party] advisers, coloring his actions and interpretation of reality. His intentions seem good when he talks with Americans, and sensitive reporting suggests he is trying to stand up to the Shia hierarchy and force positive change. But the reality on the streets of Baghdad suggests Maliki is either ignorant of what is going on, misrepresenting his intentions, or that his capabilities are not yet sufficient to turn his good intentions into action."

Hadley added, "Maliki and those around him are naturally inclined to distrust new actors." The solution, Hadley suggested, was to construct "an alternative political base" for him of "moderate" groups that would enable him to cease being sectarian.

On the most obvious level, Hadley revealed the dearth of progress within Iraq, the dominance of sectarian forces that the United States had installed, and the absence of solutions arising within its own system, requiring the national security advisor to engage in an exercise of sheer fantasy.

On an ironic level, Hadley apparently did not recognize that the leader he was describing -- sectarian, bluff but essentially weak, surrounded by fawning advisors who reinforced his skewed sense of reality, ignorant of the facts on the ground, and incapable of reaching out to forge a political center -- was a sharply drawn if unintentional portrait of his own president.

After Maliki postponed his meeting with Bush, perhaps to inflict a little humiliation for the embarrassing leak of the Hadley memo, he and Bush conferred. Bush praised him as "the right guy," identified the primary enemy in Iraq as al-Qaida, declared there would be no drawdown of U.S. forces, rebuffed the idea of direct talks with Iran, and said the United States would stay in Iraq indefinitely. "We're going to stay in Iraq to get the job done, so long as the government wants us there." He had touched nearly all the bases in his rejection of Baker's coming proposals while undermining his own leverage vis-à-vis the Iraqis.

Bush followed this performance by diving deep into the dark pool of sectarian Iraqi politics, meeting at the White House on Monday with Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a Shiite cleric and leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, who has his own militia, the Badr Brigade, long linked to and subsidized by the Iranians (al-Hakim spent 20 years in exile there), and a rival of Maliki's chief political sponsor, Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Perhaps this was the "moderate" new base Hadley imagined the United States might fabricate for Maliki. Hakim used the meeting to elevate his legitimacy and to call for increased attacks on the Sunnis. Thus, while opposing direct diplomacy with Iran and cultivating military options against it, Bush lent his support to those most closely aligned with Iranian influence in Iraq.

Two days before, a memo written by outgoing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was leaked to the New York Times. Once again, an administration that had launched federal investigations of national security leaks to the Times and the Washington Post was remarkably taciturn about the source of the leak, undoubtedly Rumsfeld himself. The memo was a slapdash series of bullet points, calling for "a major adjustment." Rumsfeld urged: "Recast the U.S. military mission and the U.S. goals (how we talk about them) -- go minimalist." As the first of "less attractive options" he listed: "Continue on the current path." The second: "Move a large fraction of all U.S. Forces into Baghdad to attempt to control it." Thus, in a last gasp to recast his image on the eve of the release of the Baker-Hamilton Commission report Rumsfeld instead repudiated his entire policy with a self-serving memo.

The day before the report was made public, Robert Gates, a former member of the commission, and the former director of the CIA under the elder Bush, appeared at his confirmation hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Do you believe that we are currently winning in Iraq?" Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., asked him. "No, sir," Gates replied. He added, "It's my impression that frankly there are no new ideas on Iraq." For this show of candor, establishing the image of an anti-Rumsfeld, the committee instantly and unanimously voted for his confirmation, a leap of faith. Will Gates, who has a reputation for compliance with superiors, resist the regime of delusion?

For James Baker, the consummate Republican political player of the Reagan-Bush era, the cool Texas patrician, summoned by his old friend George H.W. Bush whenever the family political fortunes are threatened, the rejection of his commission's report is the final act of ingratitude. He had managed the elder Bush's faltering campaign in 1988 and righted it; he had had to resign from the job he loved the most, secretary of state, to return as last-minute political handler to attempt to save the elder Bush from defeat in 1992; blamed by Barbara Bush for his efforts, because she claimed he had not come over as campaign manager early enough, the family still called him back to save George W. Bush in the 2000 Florida contest; then, his advice to the new president not to invade Iraq was ignored; but, once again, as Bush sank in the Iraqi quagmire, the family demanded his services; and now, his intervention has failed, and his diligence has been dismissed.

In preparation for his rejection of the Baker Commission report, Bush created two other study groups within his administration, one led by Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The effect was to diminish the commission as merely one among several groups offering advice. For all intents and purposes Pace's group is a counter-commission. In opposition to the Baker Commission proposals for the strategic withdrawal of troops by 2008 and diplomatic openings to Syria and Iran, as well as a regional conference on Iraq and a renewal of the Middle East peace process, Pace will suggest a new military offensive -- 20,000 more U.S. troops to secure Baghdad (exactly the idea Rumsfeld cautioned against in his memo), 10,000 more U.S. advisors for the Iraq army, and hundreds of billions more in appropriations to sustain a commitment stretching indefinitely.

Pace's plan reflects the notion that with one more concerted offensive, one more application of overwhelming might, the United States can at last gain the upper hand and prevail. Even though commanders in Iraq, along with Pace, have stressed that only a political solution can pacify Iraq, some, along with Pace, are still in thrall to the chimera of military victory. So long as someone with stars on his shoulder promises victory to Bush, he will cling to it. So long as he dreams of victory, he will find someone with stars to tell him he can have it. The alternative to wishful thinking would be acknowledgment of his error and acceptance of his fate.

Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton, writes a column for Salon and the Guardian of London. His new book is titled "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime." He is a senior fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.

MORE FROM Sidney Blumenthal

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Iraq War