Urging patience on Iraq, George W. Bush said back in July that he would be willing to discuss "different options" for going forward but only after Congress listened first to the assessment Gen. David Petraeus would be delivering come September.
"That's what the American people expect," the president said. "They expect for military people to come back and tell us how the military operations are going. And that's the way I'm going to play it, as the commander-in-chief. I'll be glad to discuss different options ... And now I call upon the United States Congress to give Gen. David Petraeus a chance to come back and tell us whether his strategy is working. And then we can work together on a way forward."
It's September now, so it must be time to begin working together on a way forward, right? Well, no. As the Associated Press reports, a senior administration official is saying that the president's mind is already made up: No matter what Petraeus tells Congress -- and Bush should have a pretty good idea of what he's going to say by now -- the AP says that the president "appears set on maintaining the central elements of the policy he announced in January."
If this story all sounds a little familiar, that's because it is.
Back in the fall of 2006, the president and his people urged Americans to withhold judgment on the way forward in Iraq until they heard from the Baker-Hamilton commission and until new Defense Secretary Robert Gates had a chance to get up to speed. As Bush prepared to announce his "surge" in early January, White House press secretary Tony Snow insisted that the president's speech would be just "the beginning of an important consideration of how we move forward in Iraq" and that "everybody" would have the "opportunity to have a full and thoughtful debate" about the war. But as soon as Bush announced the "surge," the president declared that he was going to go through with it with no matter what Congress had to say. "I made my decision, and we're going forward," he said.
And indeed, by the time Congress started debating the "surge," the White House and its supporters could claim that the debate was too late -- that the surging troops were already on their way, and that any debate about the merits of sending them would be tantamount to undermining troops in the field. Weekly Standard editor and Fox News pundit William Kristol led the charge: On Jan. 21, he declared that congressional Democrats were "so irresponsible that they can't be quiet for six or nine months and say, 'The president has made a decision, we're not going to change that decision, we're not going to cut off funds and insist on the troops coming back, so let's give it a chance to work.'"
So here we are nearly nine months out, and the sequel is looking a lot like the original. Kristol said last month that we should give the surge an additional "six months to play out," and that it would be "kind of a disgrace to pull the plug and make all the efforts for naught, just because people here are frustrated or because of partisan politics." The president, meanwhile, says that we're just now in the "early stages" of the surge, and that we "cannot expect the new strategy we are carrying out to bring success overnight."
The pattern is now clear: Demand that everyone else withhold judgment on Iraq until some new assessment arrives, announce that you're doing whatever you want to do no matter what, declare the ensuing debate to be too late, and then start the whole process over again six or nine months down the road by demanding that everyone withhold judgment again. It may not be any way to wage a war, but Bush's political tactics -- and the deaths of a few hundred more American soldiers in the meantime -- seem certain to buy him enough time to kick the problem to his successor.