A backdoor Iraq Study Group win? I don't think so

Sure, the U.S. says it will talk with Iran, and Republicans are blasting the al-Maliki government. But I think they're changing rhetoric to avoid changing direction. Plus: I'm on "Scarborough Country" tonight.

Published May 14, 2007 11:27PM (EDT)

Even as Republicans express their growing fear that the Iraq war will lead to even worse political losses in '08 than it did in '06, they're showing surprisingly little willingness to break with President Bush and find common ground with Democrats on a plan to bring the troops home. Last week, you'll recall, 11 endangered Republicans made a highly publicized visit to the president to tell him they were running out of patience with the Iraq stalemate -- and then they all voted to back the president and oppose a Democrat-backed short-term war-funding bill. We saw a lot of similar posturing over the weekend.

Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell expressed "frustration" with the war numerous times on CNN's "Late Edition," for instance, but he spent most of his time blaming the Iraqi government, not ours. Likewise, Vice President Dick Cheney upped the volume a bit on criticism of Nouri al-Maliki's government, noting he told the Iraqi leaders "there's not a lot of time to be wasted here" (as though they'd been wasting time) as he reviewed his visit today with reporters. Are Republicans getting ready to blame the Iraqis for the failure of the president's war as a possible exit strategy? If "Blame al-Maliki and get out of Iraq" became the 2007 equivalent of "Declare victory and get out of Vietnam," I'd probably take it. But I still think most Republicans are changing their rhetoric to postpone having to change direction in Iraq, and the administration's only game plan is to run out the clock and leave the Iraq mess for the next president.

McConnell also told CNN that the next Iraq spending bill will have benchmarks, for sure. Big deal; even the president says he can support benchmarks. But the new benchmark-mania skirts the tough questions: What will these benchmarks be, and what will happen if they're not met? Almost everyone's first benchmark is the passage of a law to govern how Iraq's oil production is managed and how its revenues are shared, between government and private companies and among ethnic groups. Such a law has been the focus of intense debate and policy development, and a bill exists. But it's not likely to pass by the Bush administration's May deadline, if at all. The Los Angeles Times ran a great piece Sunday showing that the country's leaders are divided over the law, which many believe gives too much power and revenue to private industry and foreign investors. As written, the bill punts on such questions as revenue sharing among the ethnic groups and who controls the oil fields. No wonder most Iraqi experts don't expect the question to be settled until the end of this year, at earliest. "We have two clocks -- the Baghdad clock and the Washington clock -- and this is a perfect example," a Kurdish leader told the Times. "This has always been the case. Washington has been pushing the Iraqis to do things to fit their agenda."

Meanwhile, after Cheney talked tough about Iran from an aircraft carrier this weekend, the U.S. announced that Iraq ambassador Ryan Crocker will meet Iranian leaders to discuss their involvement in the Iraq conflict. First Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met her Syrian counterpart; now talks with Iran? Are we seeing the backdoor implementation of the Iraq Study Group recommendations? I doubt it. But it's a welcome distraction from the fruitless search for the three missing soldiers captured this weekend in Mahmoudiya, when five others were killed. With 4,000 American troops involved in the mission to find the captured soldiers so far coming up empty-handed, the mission risks becoming a symbol of U.S. helplessness on the ground in Iraq.

I'll be talking about all of this tonight on MSNBC's "Scarborough Country," at 9 p.m. EDT/6 p.m. PDT.

By Joan Walsh

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