Bush's Irrational Exuberance

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, November 15, 2007; 12:50 PM

President Bush says he now approves of how things are going in Iraq. But what, beyond a decreased body count, does he really have to celebrate there? And what's his endgame?

Bush's exuberance contrasts dramatically with Thomas E. Ricks's sobering analysis in today's Washington Post.

Fox Business News anchor David Asman asked Bush on Tuesday: "The surge, is it working?"

Bush: "Yeah. And it's measurable. In other words, violence is declining. And the attitudes of people are changing -- when people have more security, they're more willing to forego hedging their bets, affiliation to violent groups, and willing to reach out and reconcile with their neighbor. . . .

"You know, I used to tell people at the end of '06 -- or, at the run-up of '06, the '06 elections -- had you asked me, I would have disapproved of Iraq, in those endless approval polls. I would have said, 'Well, I disapprove.' And I disapproved because we weren't winning. And my attitude is if we've got somebody in harm's way, we better have a strategy that succeeds.

"In my case, I listened to advisors and, particularly, the military people, like General [David] Petraeus and [Defense] Secretary [Robert] Gates, and said, 'I don't approve.' And they said, 'Well, here, let's try this.' And that was the surge. And I do approve now."

By contrast, consider what Ricks reports today from Baghdad: "In more than a dozen interviews, U.S. military officials expressed growing concern over the Iraqi government's failure to capitalize on sharp declines in attacks against U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians. A window of opportunity has opened for the government to reach out to its former foes, said Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the commander of day-to-day U.S. military operations in Iraq, but 'it's unclear how long that window is going to be open.'"

As Ricks puts it, ever so understatedly: "The lack of political progress calls into question the core rationale behind the troop buildup President Bush announced in January, which was premised on the notion that improved security would create space for Iraqis to arrive at new power-sharing arrangements. And what if there is no such breakthrough by next summer? 'If that doesn't happen,' Odierno said, 'we're going to have to review our strategy.'"

Ricks points out that those who say that Bush has already started pulling troops out are jumping the gun: "The latest news of declining violence comes as the U.S. troop contingent in Iraq has reached an all-time high. This week, the U.S. troop number will hit 175,000 -- the largest presence so far in the 4 1/2 -year war -- as units that are rotating in and out overlap briefly. But those numbers are scheduled to come down rapidly over the next several months, which will place an increasing burden on Iraqi security forces and an Iraqi government that has yet to demonstrate it is up to the challenge, senior military officials said."

And despite Bush's public rejection of de jure timetables, there appears to be a de facto one on the ground: "On the diplomatic side of the Iraq equation, U.S. officials said they realize time is short," Ricks writes. "'We've got six months because the military is leaving,' said one official."

Meanwhile, the finger pointing is fast and furious. Diplomatic officials have apparently "expressed irritation with the military's negativity toward the Iraqi government -- which they interpret as blaming the State Department for not speeding reconciliation.

"'That's their out,' the official said of the military. 'It's convenient, and I know plenty of them have been helping that story around.'"

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