Operation Iraqi Neighborhood Watch?

The people who sold you the war are trying to sell a new approach: Making deals with countless tribal sheiks, not the al-Maliki government. Plus: I'll be on MSNBC's "Scarborough Country" tonight

Published May 29, 2007 9:45PM (EDT)

Ten American soldiers died in Iraq on Memorial Day, making May the deadliest month of the year so far for U.S. troops. Meanwhile stateside, as Tim Grieve points out, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Peter Pace couldn't even be bothered to remember the correct number who have sacrificed their lives to date, and on Memorial Day, no less. Pace told CBS that the number of dead in Iraq is "approaching the number" who died on 9/11. But in fact, he got the data backward: 3,467 have already died in Iraq since March 2003, while 2,973 died in the 9/11 attacks.

It's understandable that Bush administration leaders would mix up facts about 9/11 and Iraq, since they've tried so hard to confuse the public about those two topics. But Monday we got news that was really confusing: Remember how the administration justified the war by claming Saddam Hussein had ties to 9/11 and to al-Qaida, when of course he didn't? Now the war to topple Saddam has done what the tyrant himself never did: Make Iraq a recruiting ground for al-Qaida. The New York Times had a dismal front-page Memorial Day report showing that al-Qaida is using the Iraq conflict to recruit supporters to fight other battles, most notably against U.S. ally Jordan. Watch that become the newest justification for a war without end: OK, this time we really are fighting al-Qaida in Iraq. No, really!

In the meantime, though, the people who brought you the war are preparing to sell you a whole new story: According to Tuesday's Los Angeles Times, U.S. military leaders are confiding that they don't believe the Iraqi government can meet the goals President Bush laid out -- sharing oil revenues, holding provincial elections and more power sharing with Sunni Arabs -- when he ordered the troop surge in January. Gen. David Petraeus doubts he'll have much good news on those topics in his planned September report to Congress, so surge supporters are trying to gin up enthusiasm for more modest goals: better security in some neighborhoods, less factionalism in others, some infrastructure improvements.

Maybe it's true, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates supposedly believes, that the U.S. can do more making local deals with tribal sheiks than with the central, and weak, government of Nouri al-Maliki. But if success in Iraq is going to come down to American commanders negotiating countless deals with local sheiks and warlords, we're going to be in Iraq a long, long time. That might have been an innovative work plan for March 2003, but to sell the idea to the country in September 2007 will be tough. And nobody is saying that this new focus -- call it Operation Iraqi Neighborhood Watch -- will be peaceful: President Bush warned the nation last week to expect a bloody summer as more American soldiers arrive in Iraq thanks to the surge, and more die. That has certainly been true so far: May will complete the bloodiest six months in the Iraq war's history, as the escalation Bush began in January costs more lives.

But since we've been told that restive Republicans want to give the Bush administration, and Petraeus, until September to make progress, what should we expect to see then? September is crucial on several fronts: The defense budget, and the Iraq supplemental funding bill, come up then, too. Will Republicans make good on their threats to cancel Bush's blank check, or will they just let the administration continue to define success downward? Will Democrats devise a political strategy they can stick to before Labor Day, rather than caving in as they did before Memorial Day? You can count on one thing: The Bush administration and whatever generals he puts in charge won't be any more truthful in September than they were in January, or May. It's on war opponents, in both parties, to be smarter. Can they learn from their mistakes so far?

I'll be talking about all of this on MSNBC's "Scarborough Country" Tuesday night.

By Joan Walsh

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