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Joe Conason
Joe Conason
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Bush's Baghdad Shell Game


As the deadline approaches for official assessments of American policy in Iraq, the Bush administration is maintaining a steady barrage of diversions, obfuscations and manipulations. These great clouds of smoke, emanating from Washington's think tanks and the mainstream media as well as the press offices of the White House and the Pentagon, have a single purpose: to blind us to objective realities so that the war can continue indefinitely.

The arguments change but the underlying style remains the same. Since they're losing the debate, they want to change the subject. When congressional leaders sought to schedule hearings on two important Iraq reports — one from the Government Accountability Office and another by an independent commission of military experts — they invited U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and General David Petraeus, the commander of American forces, to testify. The Pentagon flacks tried to schedule those appearances for Sept. 11 — a ridiculous maneuver properly rejected by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Changing the subject has been the primary theme of this misadventure from the beginning. In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney wanted to shift the American response from al Qaeda and the Taliban to Iraq's alleged "weapons of mass destruction." When the U.S. ousted Saddam Hussein and those weapons could not be found, the grounds for war changed from U.S. security to the democratic and humanitarian transformation of "the new Mideast." And now we are back to the "war on terror," with our aims reduced to extirpating al Qaeda in Iraq (an organization that did not exist until the U.S. invasion) and preventing the spread of Iranian influence in the region (evidently by propping up Tehran's allies in Baghdad).

Looking back over this kaleidoscopic assortment of claims and theories, there is no logical pattern, no factual rigor, no acknowledgment of realities that don't fit preconceived scripts. There is only and always the next evasion of responsibility for a disastrous foreign policy, based on a vacant-minded whim, that has cost many thousands of lives and squandered our treasure and prestige.

The latest version of the same old game comes under the rubric of "benchmarks." Rather than accept the judgment of the Iraq Study Group and start to wind down the war toward a negotiated peace and withdrawal, the president and his advisers insisted on a troop escalation, which they called "the surge." The Republicans in Congress, fearful of their increasingly angry constituents, imposed a price for support of the surge.

Within six months, Gen. Petraeus and Amb. Crocker would be required to report on progress, or lack thereof, toward a list of major objectives in stabilizing and securing Iraq.

Now, of course, with those reports coming due and those benchmarks woefully underachieved, the time has come to change the subject again.

The first sign came weeks ago, when the Pentagon escorted certain defense analysts from Washington on a tour that highlighted the surge's successes. Among those analysts were Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution, both longtime supporters of the war who now occasionally disguise themselves as critics. Pollack in particular has earned a perpetual place in obscurity for his prewar book touting the imminent nuclear threat from Saddam, which didn't actually exist.

With the help of The New York Times op-ed page, they launched the latest sophistry, which now turns up everywhere, often under the bylines of the same gang that helped to conceive the war and the surge. We are now making great strides in places such as Anbar province, they say, where Sunni insurgent sheiks have abandoned al Qaeda in favor of an alliance with us. If only we continue the surge, and expand it, then someday we will be able to wind down the occupation, and shrink it.

What this argument neglects to address, of course, is the real situation on the ground in Iraq and the reasons why the Sunni sheiks might suddenly seek our assistance. Those warlords need our help because they are under constant assault by the Shia-dominated army and police. Violence continues unabated and the trend toward civil war has not been halted. There is virtually no progress toward the benchmarks of stability and reconciliation, which were supposedly the original aims of the surge.

Tomorrow we will be assured that those benchmarks never really mattered or can't really be measured, or something like that. Don't look there! Look over here! It is the traditional cry of the shell game, except that these bets are much too high.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer ( To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at



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