"Staying the course" or "slow failure"?

If 2006 was a "lousy year" for Iraq, why did the president wait until it was over to do anything about it?

By Tim Grieve
Published January 17, 2007 2:16PM (EST)

George W. Bush, who insisted before the midterm elections that "absolutely, we're winning" in Iraq, admitted in an interview with Jim Lehrer Tuesday that his strategy for the war until now might fairly be described as one of "slow failure."

"If you were to ... put me in an opinion poll and said, 'Do I approve of Iraq?' I'd be one of those that said, 'No, I don't approve of what's taking place in Iraq,'" Bush said. "On the other hand, I do believe we can succeed. Look, I had a choice to make, Jim, and that is -- one -- do what we're doing. And one could define that maybe as a slow failure. Secondly, withdraw out of Baghdad and hope for the best. I would think that would be expedited failure. And thirdly is to help this Iraqi government with additional forces -- help them do what they need to do, which is to provide security in Baghdad."

Bush didn't seem entirely confident that plan No. 3 would work; he said only that he thought it's "one that has got a better chance of any one I've seen around here that will succeed."

Lehrer noted that Bush has "made a lot of decisions ... made a lot of judgments about things, and they haven't worked." Why, he asked, should anyone expect the president's latest plan to work any better?

Bush's response: "Well, actually -- I will sound defensive -- but some of my decisions actually have worked, like getting rid of Saddam Hussein and helping the Iraqi government form a unity government that is based on a novel constitution for the Middle East. As a matter of fact, in 2005, I thought -- I mean, in 2006, I thought I'd be in a position to remove troops from Iraq, in other words, hand over more of the authorities to the Iraqis so they could take the fight, and then this sectarian violence that you described broke out. And the question is, do we try to stop it? Do we help the Iraqis stop it? And a year ago, I felt pretty good about the situation; I felt like we were achieving our objective, which is a country that can govern, sustain, and defend itself. No question, 2006 was a lousy year for Iraq. And so the question I'm now faced with is do I react to that or do we just begin to leave, which is -- some people -- decent people on Capitol Hill think we ought to do. I made the decision, let's succeed; let's work for success, not work for failure."

Well, that's one of the questions we're all faced with now. Here's another: If there's "no question" that "2006 was a lousy year for Iraq," how is it that the president did virtually nothing about it until the year was almost over?

And on that point, it's fair to note that 2004 and 2005 weren't exactly beer and skittles, either. As McClatchy Newspapers reported over the weekend, "U.S. diplomats, reporters and military and intelligence officers began reporting that Shiite death squads were targeting Sunni clerics and former officials of Saddam Hussein's Sunni regime" in 2004; by the summer of 2005, the tortured bodies of kidnapped Sunni clerics were turning up regularly in the streets of Baghdad. We don't know whether "staying the course" through more than two years of that sort of sectarian violence amounts to "slow failure" or "expedited failure." But pretending the violence didn't exist until February 2006 and even then waiting nearly a year to take action? If you put us in an opinion poll, we'd have to call a man who'd do that a "miserable failure."

Tim Grieve

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

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