Will the White House's "surge" idea turn into the latest version of Harriet Miers: an idea so ill-conceived and unpopular that the White House is forced to back down before carrying it out?
Sending more troops to Iraq is unpopular among the public and at the Pentagon. Even the rank-and-file are skeptical: 38 percent opted for more troops in this Military Times poll, but 39 percent said the number should be the same or less (see question 13 - amusingly, or appallingly, 13 percent said the number of troops should be "zero."). Republican members of Congress are starting to question the wisdom/purpose of a boost in troop strength. Even the Washington punditocracy, which generally loves a decisive president sending troops onto the battlefield, is voicing doubts this time.
A striking segment Tuesday morning on the Today Show featured Tim Russert and Tom Brokaw sounding extremely skeptical about the "surge" concept:
Brokaw: The manner in which Saddam Hussein was executed reveals the essential truth about Iraq: this is a deeply divided country, along tribal lines. The idea that we're going to impose the rule of law and democracy there by putting in more troops now will seem to most people - especially to those families who may be sending somebody there - like a folly. And a lot of families and a lot of people who are raising their hands to join the armed services are wondering - I'm giving my life for that?
Russert: Slogans aren't enough. We started off with "shock and awe." And then it was, "they'll stand up we'll stand down." Then it was "clear and hold." Now it's "we're going to surge." The American people are saying, "what is this all about? What is our real strategy? Where are we going?" If we're going to send more American troops to Iraq, this president not only has to convince Congress, he has to take this entire country to war.
(Russert, always carefully managing expectations, leaves a kind of trap door for Bush to pass through to gain approval. If the president gives a great speech when he unveils the surge plan, he may yet rally the pundit class, at least for a short time - though perhaps not the nation.)
Politics aside, the other way the surge decision tracks with with Miers is that it is a dubious idea, and one whose fallout may linger for years. It's the kind of inscrutable choice that makes you ask, "what is he thinking?" Is this a classic presidential decision - the "weighing of options" in pursuit of a clear-eyed military strategy - or the choice of someone who doesn't grasp the complexity of what's going on? Is it an attempt to save, face, run out the clock?
But where this differs with Miers is in the constituencies involved. The Right decisively rebelled against Miers. Not so with the surge. Republicans are split, but many hard-liners are sticking by their man, or at least not opposing him outright (especially those not up for reelection in 2008). Last time I checked, Rush Limbaugh was gunning to send more troops and holding out for victory.
And of course, Supreme Court choices also turn more heavily on domestic politics than military decisions. It's twice as hard to execute a pirouette as commander in chief and pretend that nothing happened, especially if you call yourself the Decider. Bush saw defeat staring him in the face with Miers. With a surge, he sees a way to avoid defeat, at least for a while longer.
But what happens, politically, if he drags us all further down the road? Republicans will likely pay a price, even if Bush, personally, does not. And that may bring this back into Miers territory.