A question of timing

The White House says things changed in Iraq with the bombing of the Golden Mosque. That was almost a year ago.

By Tim Grieve
Published January 10, 2007 9:32PM (EST)

At a campaign rally in Texas on Nov. 6, George W. Bush said that his administration had a "plan for victory" in Iraq. "Not only do we have a good plan," the president said, "we've also got unbelievable people carrying out that plan."

Tonight, the president will say that his plan isn't working. And those "unbelievable people" carrying it out? Donald Rumsfeld is gone, and Gens. John Abizaid and George Casey will soon be following him.

So here's a question: Was the president lying when he said in November that he thought his administration had a "good plan" and "unbelievable people" carrying it out, or has something in Iraq changed so dramatically since then that the "good plan" of early November is not such a good plan anymore?

A reporter tried, ever so politely, to get an answer to that question today: "What has changed in the last two months?" he asked a senior administration official.

The answer: "I think it's really what we've seen over the last year," the senior administration official said. "The big trigger was obviously ... the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samara."

That happened last February. But we don't mean to interrupt.

"I think it's true that the Iraqis did look into the abyss," the senior administration official continued. "Two months later, they did -- had a unity government. The Iraqi security forces, particularly the army, did not fracture. But over the spring and summer, that sectarian violence did not abate, but it continued to build. And I think it led people to conclude that what we were doing wasn't working."

Yes, but in the spring and summer, the president was still insisting that his administration had a "a clear strategy to help the Iraqi people protect their new freedom, and build a democracy that can govern itself, and sustain itself, and defend itself." He was still saying that he'd make decisions about troop levels "based upon the recommendations of people like Gen. George Casey."

But we shouldn't keep interrupting.

The senior administration official continued: "And obviously, you don't want to declare a strategy dead until you have a new one to put in its place. And so -- and about two, three months ago, the president asked -- these reviews started, very informally, and then, as you know, the president asked they be brought together in an NSC system and done in a systematic way. And he's been pretty public about that review over the last two or three months."

"Pretty public" for the "last two or three months"? Not true. That rally in Texas on Nov. 6 -- the one where Bush talked about what a "good plan" he had for Iraq -- was the president's last major campaign appearance before the midterm elections. He didn't mention any doubts about his existing plan then. That came about a week later -- a week after Bush's party took its "thumpin'" -- when the White House put out word that the president had asked the national security agencies to assess the strategy in Iraq. As the Washington Post reported on Nov. 16, administration officials couldn't even talk about the existence of the review on the record then because it had not yet been "publicly announced."

So we get back to the questions: Did the president really think his plan was working back in early November? Or has he known since the spring or the summer that his plan wasn't working but chose not to say -- or do -- much of anything about it then for fear of hurting his party's chances in the midterm elections? How many U.S. soldiers died between the time Bush figured out his plan wasn't working and the time he asked the national security agencies to look seriously at the situation? How many have died in the two months he has now spent consulting and deliberating about the new way forward?

And if it was OK for the president to dawdle around with -- and demagogue Democrats about -- a nonworking plan for two or three or six or nine months, how can he possibly justify launching his escalation in Iraq within the next five days, before Congress has time to do its own review of the plan he's finally ready to unveil tonight?

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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George W. Bush Iraq Iraq War Middle East War Room