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Sunday, September 09, 2007

Bush hiding behind the General?

Hiding Behind the General
The New York Times | Editorial

Sunday 09 September 2007

The military commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, is to deliver a report to Congress on Monday that could be the most consequential testimony by a wartime commander in more than a generation. What the country desperately needs is an honest assessment of the war and a clear strategy for extricating American forces from the hopeless spiral of violence in Iraq.

President Bush, however, seems to be aiming for maximum political advantage - not maximum clarity on Iraq's military and political crises, which cannot be separated from each other. Mr. Bush, we fear, isn't looking for the truth, only for ways to confound the public, scare Democrats into dropping their demands for a sound exit strategy, and prolong the war until he leaves office. At times, General Petraeus gives the disturbing impression that he, too, is more focused on the political game in Washington than the unfolding disaster in Iraq. That serves neither American nor Iraqi interests.

Mr. Bush, deeply unpopular with the American people, is counting on the general to restore credibility to his discredited Iraq policy. He frequently refers to the escalation of American forces last January as General Petraeus's strategy - as if it were not his own creation. The situation echoes the way Mr. Bush made Colin Powell - another military man with an overly honed sense of a soldier's duty - play frontman at the United Nations in 2003 to make the case that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Bush cannot once again subcontract his responsibility. This is his war.

General Petraeus has his own credibility problems. He overstepped in 2004 when he published an op-ed article in The Washington Post six weeks before the election. The general - then in charge of training and equipping Iraq's security forces - rhapsodized about "tangible progress" and how the Iraqi forces were "developing steadily," an assessment that may have swayed some voters but has long since proved to be untrue.

And just last week, senior military commanders in Baghdad who work for General Petraeus entered the political fray by taking issue - anonymously - with the grim assessment of Iraq's politics and security by non-partisan Congressional investigators.

As Congress waited anxiously for General Petraeus's testimony, a flurry of well-timed news reports said that he told the White House he could go along with the withdrawal of about 4,000 American troops beginning in January but wanted to maintain increased force levels well into next year - just like Mr. Bush. Democrats who once demanded a firm date for the start of a troop pullout immediately started backpedaling.

Withdrawing 4,000 troops and dangling the prospect of additional withdrawals is a token political gesture, not a new strategy. If it proves enough to cow Congress into halting its push for a more robust and concrete exit strategy, that would be political cowardice at its worst.

We hope that General Petraeus can resist the political pressure and provide an unvarnished assessment of the military situation in Iraq. He is an important source of information, of course, but he is only one source - and he is not the man who sets American policy. If Mr. Bush insists on listening only to those who agree with him, Congress and the public must weigh General Petraeus's report against all data, including two new independent evaluations sharply at odds with the Pentagon's claim that things in Iraq are substantially better.

The Government Accountability Office found that the Iraqi government has not met 11 of 18 benchmarks set by Congress and that violence remains high, despite the White House's disingenuous claims of success. And a commission of retired senior military officers determined that Iraq's army will be unable to take over responsibility for internal security in the next 12 to 18 months. That is four years beyond what the Pentagon predicted in 2004. It is too long.

Nothing has changed about Mr. Bush's intentions. Waving off the independent reports, he plans to stay the course and make his successor fix his Iraq fiasco. Military progress without political progress is meaningless, and Mr. Bush no more has a plan for unifying Iraq now than when he started the war. The United States needs a prudent exit strategy that will withdraw American forces and try to stop Iraq's chaos from spreading.


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