Conflating the questions on Iraq

Can the "surge" work while the strategy fails?

Published August 21, 2007 2:26PM (EDT)

As we noted Monday, Sens. Carl Levin and John Warner have returned from Iraq to report that while the "surge" may be producing "measurable results" in reducing violence, they are "not optimistic" that the Iraq government will use its newfound "breathing space" to make the compromises "essential for a political solution in Iraq."

In a follow-up press conference call with reporters, Levin made it clear that his was no glass-half-full assessment. "The purpose of the surge, by its own terms, was to ... give the opportunity to the Iraqi leaders to reach some political settlements," Levin said. "They have failed to do that. They have totally and utterly failed."

Fox News' headline on Levin's report? Think Progress caught it: "Sens. Warner and Levin Travel to Iraq, Praise Surge Results."

Fox isn't alone. Searching for a story line -- and there's nothing better than an intraparty fight featuring flip-flopping politicians -- the mainstream media is playing up the notion that Democrats have gone soft on the "surge."

The Washington Times checks in this morning with a headline that reads, "Democrats See 'Results' in Iraq." The story bundles Levin's comments with similar ones Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin made recently and with a speech New York Sen. Hillary Clinton made before the Veterans of Foreign Wars Monday. In the speech, Clinton said: "We've begun to change tactics in Iraq, and in some areas, particularly in Al Anbar province, it's working." How the Washington Times uses that sentence: "'It's working,' Mrs. Clinton said of the troop surge."

Clinton went on to say that the United States alone cannot "impose a military solution" on Iraq; that the Iraqis are not "ready to do what they have to do for themselves yet"; that it is "unacceptable for our troops to be caught in the crossfire of a sectarian civil war while the Iraqi government is on vacation"; that it's "time the Iraqi government took responsibility for themselves and their country, because the American people and our American military cannot want freedom and stability for the Iraqis more than they want it for themselves"; and that the "best way" to honor the men and women who have served in Iraq is "by beginning to bring them home and making sure that when they come home that we have everything ready for them."

The New York Times quotes Clinton more fairly than the Washington Times does, but it still says that her remarks about the "surge" were "notable because Mrs. Clinton has been a consistent critic of the Bush administration's troop escalation in Iraq, and Republican presidential candidates have been seizing on signs of progress in Al Anbar Province in arguing against a troop withdrawal."

A flip-flop from Clinton? That's the implication. MSBNC says Clinton's speech may "raise a few eyebrows," and CQ Politics' Craig Crawford explains why: "Speaking to a veterans group, Clinton undercut claims, including her own, that President George W. Bush's troop buildup would not work. 'It's working,' she said, but 'we're just years too late.' Seven months ago Clinton had predicted that the surge 'cannot be successful.'"

But Clinton didn't say Monday that the troop buildup is "working" any more than she said seven months ago "that the surge 'cannot be successful.'" What Clinton said then was this: "I hope that we can start having a discussion in the Congress among ourselves ... and with the administration that will lead to a change of course, and not adding more troops, pursuing a strategy that, under present circumstances, cannot be successful."

We'll admit it's a fine distinction, but it shouldn't be so hard to understand. Is the "surge" having some success, in some areas, in reducing the levels of violence in Iraq? Yes. Is the overall "strategy" working -- that is, is the Iraqi government using the "breathing space" it's getting to do the things it needs to do? No. While it's certainly in the Bush administration's interests to conflate the questions and confuse the answers, the White House has people on staff paid to do just that. Journalists aren't supposed to be doing it for them.

By Tim Grieve

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

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Carl Levin D-mich. Hillary Rodham Clinton Iraq War