In the early days of the Iraq occupation, the Bush Administration appeared to be "making it up on the run." From Secretary Rumsfeld forbidding the use of the word "insurgency" to President Bush's "Bring 'em on." Lacking a post invasion plan, they had to ad lib.
The same approach seems to have reemerged for the end game. First, the administration touted General Petraeus' planned September report as a major benchmark. The argument for an unencumbered supplemental appropriation was to allow time for the surge to work. Before the ink dried on the supplemental, an effort began to downplay the significance of the September report. Now, the overall ground commander in Iraq, Army Lieutenant General Raymond T. Odierno indicates that the report may simply say that it is too soon to evaluate the surge and more time may be requested.
Meanwhile there was even talk of accepting the spurned recommendations of the Iraq Study Group (aka the Baker-Hamilton Report). Long-term refusal to talk directly with Iran melted and a reluctant diplomacy was begun. And there were reports of a shift in strategy away from combat operations toward concentrating on al-Qaida and training Iraqi forces (a strategy the Democrats put forth in the vetoed version of the supplemental).
But just as beleaguered Republicans saw hope of lightening the electoral millstone for supporting the President on the increasingly unpopular war, Secretary of Defense Gates and General Odierno muse that a long term U.S military presence in Iraq might be desirable. The analogy, it seems, is not Vietnam but the 50-year U.S. military presence in Korea. These statements confirmed the darkest suspicions of war critics, These critics have long tied the invasion of Iraq to the fanciful NeoCon "Project for a New American Century" which posited a permanent American military presence astride the oil fields of the Middle East and Caucasus. The Bush Administration has refused to deny this ambition or the ambition to have privileged access to Iraqi oil.
The Korean analogy is not only nonsense, it is dangerous nonsense, dangerous because it fuels Arab and Iraqi suspicions that the real reason for the invasion and occupation was oil. The invasion and occupation of Iraq has been a boon for al-Qaida recruiting and fund raising. A permanent U.S. operational presence in Iraq would multiply the gift to the jihadists.
The analogy is nonsense on several levels. First, the Korean War, but not the war in Iraq, was based on a U.N. resolution and General MacArthur was a U.N. as well as U.S. commander. North Korea invaded the South, the U.S. invaded Iraq. The U.N. effort in Korea was in support of the government in the South. The U.S. invasion of Iraq toppled the existing government. Today there is no effective government in Baghdad. Korea had one international ground border to defend; Iraq has six. And the mission in Korea was and is to protect against external aggression whereas, according to the Post article cited above, Presidential Press Secretary Tony Snow says the mission in Iraq will be internal security. Long term U.S. military policing of Iraqi internal security? That is nonsense.
So is President Bush not satisfied with stringing out the war until he leaves office? Is he planning to lay the foundation for a long term U.S. operational capability in Iraq, astride critical oil resources? Or is the strategy to continue the surge and hope something good happens? Or is Baker-Hamilton the real option? Based on experience, neither the President nor the American people have a clue right now.
Fortunately, Mr. Bush only has 20 months left in office, not 20 years. But "making it up as you go along" has inadvertently raised the core issue now faced in Iraq: Should the U.S. begin redeploying forces for a timely withdrawal from Iraq or for a permanent presence there? Supporters of the President, including those Republican candidates looking for a way to distance themselves on this issue, will have a new millstone to carry into the election no matter which way the president lurches next.