Behind Bush's "new way forward"

A battered group of neocons delivered the president his latest war plan, letting him reject the grave warnings of the Iraq Study Group and deny that we're losing the war.

Published December 20, 2006 5:30PM (EST)

"We're going to win," President Bush told a guest at a White House Christmas party. Another guest, ingratiating himself with his host, urged him to ignore the report of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by James Baker, the former secretary of state and his father's close associate, which described the crisis in Iraq as "grave and deteriorating," and offered 79 recommendations for diplomacy, transferring responsibility to the Iraqi government and withdrawing nearly all U.S. troops by 2008. "The president chuckled," according to an account in the neoconservative Weekly Standard, "and said he'd made his position clear when he appeared with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The report had never mentioned the possibility of American victory. Bush's goal in Iraq, he said at the photo op with Blair, is 'victory.'" Bush reasserted his belief that "victory in Iraq is achievable" at his Wednesday press conference.

Two members of the ISG were responsible for George W. Bush's becoming president. Baker had maneuvered through the thicket of the 2000 Florida contest, finally bringing Bush v. Gore before the Supreme Court, where Sandra Day O'Connor was the deciding vote. (Jeffrey Toobin of the New Yorker reported that she had complained before hearing the case that she wanted to retire but did not want a Democrat to appoint her replacement.) Through the Iraq Study Group Baker and O'Connor were attempting to salvage what they had made possible in Bush v. Gore. Upon Bush's receipt of the report, a White House spokesman told the press, "Jim Baker can go back to his day job."

The day after the report was submitted, on Dec. 8, Tony Blair appeared at the White House. He had testified before the Baker Commission, and supported its main proposals, but now stood beside Bush as the president tossed them aside, talking instead of "victory." "The president isn't standing alone," explained White House press secretary Tony Snow. Blair left to pursue a vain mission for Middle East peace, emphasizing by his presence the U.S. absence. His predetermined failure outlined the dimensions of the vacuum that only the U.S. could fill. On Dec. 18, Chatham House, the former Royal Institute of International Affairs, issued a report on Blair's foreign policy: "The root failure of Tony Blair's foreign policy has been its inability to influence the Bush administration in any significant way despite the sacrifice -- military, political and financial -- that the United Kingdom has made."

The day before the Chatham House report was released former Secretary of State Colin Powell appeared on CBS News' "Face the Nation" to announce his support for the rejected Iraq Study Group and declare, "We are not winning, we are losing." He made plain his opposition to any new "surge" of troops in Baghdad, a tactic he said had already been tried and failed. Powell added that Bush had not explained "the mission" and that "we are a little less safe."

The Chatham House report describes Blair and Powell as partners before the invasion of Iraq who had concluded that Bush was set on war and decided to lend their voices to its defense. "The British role was therefore to provide diplomatic cover," the report states. Powell, of course, delivered the most important speech of his career justifying the invasion before the United Nations Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003, which was later disclosed to have been a tissue of falsehoods and which he called a "blot" on his record. Since the time of the Reagan administration, when he was national security advisor, Powell had been aligned with Baker, the elder Bush and other foreign policy realists. But during his tenure as secretary of state he had suppressed his skepticism and obligations as a constitutional officer in favor of his loyalty as a "good soldier" to his commander in chief. Now, his reputation in tatters, he is trying to restore himself as a member of his original team and speaking for the unanimous opposition to Bush's new plans from the Joint Chiefs of Staff of which he was once chairman.

Bush's touted but unexplained "new way forward" (his version of the ISG's "the way forward") may be the first order of battle, complete with details of units, maps and timetables, ever posted on the Web site of a think tank. "I will not be rushed," said Bush. But apparently he has already accepted the latest neoconservative program, artfully titled with catchphrases appealing to his desperation -- "Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq" -- and available for reading on the site of the American Enterprise Institute.

The author of this plan is Frederick W. Kagan, a neoconservative at the AEI and the author of a new book, "Finding the Target: The Transformation of American Military Policy," replete with up-to-date neocon scorn of Bush as "simplistic," Donald Rumsfeld as "fatuous," and even erstwhile neocon icon Paul Wolfowitz, former deputy secretary of defense and currently president of the World Bank, as "self-serving." Among the others listed as "participants" in drawing up the plan are various marginal and obscure figures including, notably, Danielle Pletka, a former aide to Sen. Jesse Helms; Michael Rubin, an aide to the catastrophic Coalition Provisional Authority; and retired Maj. Gen. Jack Keane, the former deputy Army chief of staff.

This rump group of neocons is the battered remnant left of the phalanx that once conjured up grandiose visions of conquest and blowtorched ideological ground for Bush. Although neocons are still entrenched in the Vice President's Office and on the National Security Council, they mostly feel that their perfect ideas have been the victims of imperfect execution. Rather than accepting any responsibility for the ideas themselves, they blame Rumsfeld and Bush. Meyrav Wurmser, a research fellow at the neoconservative Hudson Institute, whose husband, David Wurmser, is a Middle East advisor on Dick Cheney's staff, recently vented the neocons' despair to an Israeli news outlet: "This administration is in its twilight days. Everyone is now looking for work, looking to make money ... We all feel beaten after the past five years." But they are not so crushed that they cannot summon one last ragged Team B to provide a manifesto for a cornered president.

"Choosing Victory" is a prophetic document, a bugle call for an additional 30,000 troops to fight a decisive Napoleonic battle for Baghdad. (Its author, Kagan, has written a book on Napoleon.) It assumes that through this turning point the Shiite militias will melt away, the Sunni insurgents will suffer defeat and from the solid base of Baghdad security will radiate throughout the country. The plan also assumes that additional combat teams that actually take considerable time to assemble and train are instantly available for deployment. And it dismisses every diplomatic initiative proposed by the Iraq Study Group as dangerously softheaded. Foremost among the plan's assertions is that there is still a military solution in Iraq -- "victory."

The strategic premise of the entire document rests on the incredulous disbelief that the U.S. cannot enforce its will through force. "Victory is still an option in Iraq," it states. "America, a country of 300 million people with a GDP of $12 trillion, and more than 1 million soldiers and marines can regain control of Iraq, a state the size of California with a population of 25 million and a GDP under $100 billion." By these gross metrics, France should never have lost in Algeria and Vietnam. The U.S. experience in Vietnam goes unmentioned.

Bush's rejection of the Iraq Study Group report was presaged by a post-election speech delivered on Dec. 4 by Karl Rove at the Churchill dinner held by Hillsdale College, a citadel of conservative crankdom. Here Rove conflated Winston Churchill and George W. Bush, Neville Chamberlain and James Baker, and the Battle of Britain and the Iraq war. "Why would we want to pursue a policy that our enemies want?" demanded Rove. "We will either win or we will lose  Winston Churchill showed us the way. And like Great Britain under its greatest leader, we in the United States will not waver, we will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail."

A week later, on Dec. 11, Bush met at the White House with Jack Keane, from the latest neocon Team B, and four other critics of the ISG. But even before, on Dec. 8, in a meeting with senators, he compared himself to an embattled Harry Truman, unpopular as he forged the early policies of the Cold War. When Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., offered that Truman had created the NATO alliance, worked through the U.N. and conducted diplomacy with enemies, and that Bush could follow his example by endorsing the recommendations of the ISG, Bush rejected Durbin's fine-tuning of the historical analogy and replied that he was "the commander in chief."

The opening section of the ISG report is a lengthy analysis of the dire situation in Iraq. But Bush has frantically brushed that analysis away just as he has rejected every objective assessment that had reached him before. He has assimilated no analysis whatsoever of what's gone wrong. For him, there's no past, especially his own. There's only the present. The war is detached from strategic purposes, the history of Iraq and the region, and political and social dynamics, and instead is grasped as a test of character. Ultimately, what's at stake is his willpower.

Repudiated in the midterm elections, Bush has elevated himself above politics, and repeatedly says, "I am the commander in chief." With the crash of Rove's game plan for using his presidency as an instrument to leverage a permanent Republican majority, Bush is abandoning the role of political leader. He can't disengage militarily from Iraq because that would abolish his identity as a military leader, his default identity and now his only one.

Unlike the political leader, the commander in chief doesn't require persuasion; he rules through orders, deference and the obedience of those beneath him. By discarding the ISG report, Bush has rejected doubt, introspection, ambivalence and responsibility. By embracing the AEI manifesto, he asserts the warrior virtues of will, perseverance and resolve. The contest in Iraq is a struggle between will and doubt. Every day his defiance proves his superiority over lesser mortals. Even the Joint Chiefs have betrayed the martial virtues that he presumes to embody. He views those lacking his will with rising disdain. The more he stands up against those who tell him to change, the more virtuous he becomes. His ability to realize those qualities surpasses anyone else's and passes the character test.

The mere suggestion of doubt is fatally compromising. Any admission of doubt means complete loss, impotence and disgrace. Bush cannot entertain doubt and still function. He cannot keep two ideas in his head at the same time. Powell misunderstood when he said that the current war strategy lacks a clear mission. The war is Bush's mission.

No matter the setback it's always temporary, and the campaign can always be started from scratch in an endless series of new beginnings and offensives -- "the new way forward" -- just as in his earlier life no failure was irredeemable through his father's intervention. Now he has rejected his father's intervention in preference for the clean slate of a new scenario that depends only on his willpower.

"We're not winning, we're not losing," Bush told the Washington Post on Tuesday, a direct rebuke of Powell's formulation, saying he was citing Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and adding, "We're going to win." Winning means not ending the war while he is president. Losing would mean coming to the end of the rope while he was still in office. In his mind, so long as the war goes on and he maintains his will he can win. Then only his successor can be a loser.

Bush's idea of himself as personifying martial virtues, however, is based on a vision that would be unrecognizable to all modern theorists of warfare. According to Karl von Clausewitz, war is the most uncertain of human enterprises, difficult to understand, hardest to control and demanding the highest degree of adaptability. It was Clausewitz who first applied the metaphor of "fog" to war. In his classic work, "On War," he warned, "We only wish to represent things as they are, and to expose the error of believing that a mere bravo without intellect can make himself distinguished in war."

By 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.

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