Bush's escalation and the disappearing benchmarks

Countering assurances made by the secetary of defense, Bush's new Iraq commander will send more troops to Baghdad no matter what the Iraqis do.

Published January 23, 2007 5:17PM (EST)

The morning after George W. Bush announced plans to send 21,500 more U.S. troops to Iraq, Defense Secretary Robert Gates declared at a press conference that "the timetable for the introduction of additional U.S. forces will provide ample opportunity early on and before many of the additional U.S. troops actually arrive in Iraq to evaluate the progress of this endeavor and whether the Iraqis are fulfilling their commitments to us."

As the Washington Post reported, Gates subsequently reassured the Senate Armed Services Committee that if the Iraqi government failed to deliver the security forces and political support it has promised, the United States could hold back deployment of many of the additional troops.

Which is all well and good, except that it appears that the president's new commander in Iraq has an entirely different plan. As the Associated Press is reporting, Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, Bush's nominee to replace Gen. George Casey as commander of multinational forces in Iraq, told the Senate Armed Services Committee today that there are no "specific conditions" the Nouri al-Maliki government must meet to keep additional U.S. troops moving into Iraq.

Is that really what Petraeus means? It seems to be. Officials "familiar" with the general's "thinking" tell the Post that he intends to send "all 17,500 additional U.S. troops ordered by President Bush into Baghdad, regardless of whether Iraqi army units join the fight as planned."

So here's a question: Did Gates lie to the public and to the Senate about the administration's war plan, or does a commander like Petraeus really have the authority to disregard the plan that the secretary of defense has described to the rest of us? And before anyone says it's the latter, answer us this: Would Petraeus also have been free to decide not to send any additional troops at all?

By Tim Grieve

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

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