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Don't Be Fooled: Bush Outfoxed America - And Maybe McCain, Too

01/10/2007 09:48 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The air will be buzzing tonight with comments about Bush's shortsightedness, his lack of a coherent war plan, and his word-parsing about "mistakes." All of that's a distraction, and a very successful one. Bush's goal since November has been to prevent a withdrawal from Iraq - one that voters demanded and the Iraq Study Group recommended.

He's succeeded beyond all expectations. A short six weeks ago it would have been impossible to believe that the Administration could avoid debating the merits of withdrawal, at least under the Study Group's relatively unambitious terms. Bush needed a way to re-frame the debate and buy himself more time. He found one.

Withdrawal is now off the table. The Administration's escalation plan isn't just a desperate military ploy. It's also a clever negotiating gambit, a way to raise their own demands so that Democrats are forced to fight for the status quo instead of pursuing positive change.

The lesson? Never underestimate the President or his advisors. Today's debate is "to surge or not to surge," rather than "to withdraw or not to withdraw."

They can finally say "mission accomplished" about something war-related.

Bush isn't concerned about his poll numbers or the 2008 election right now. He's in a desperate spot. The only possible way to salvage his reputation - and possibly his party - is to stay in Iraq in the hopes that the situation will miraculously reverse itself. That, and not the "surge" itself, is the goal of every move he's made since November. Sure, he wants troop escalation, but even if that effort fails he's delayed the real fight over the war for another day.

Bush's escalation plan wasn't just a desperate military ploy. It was a clever negotiating gambit, a way to raise his own demands so that Democrats are forced to fight for the status quo instead of pursuing positive change. Threats against Iran represent yet another new demand that puts war opponents on the defensive.

John Conyers and Russ Feingold are continuing to press for withdrawal, and Durbin was right to call this a move in the wrong direction - but I've been channel-surfing for an hour now (since the speech) and haven't heard any discussion of ending the war. I'm hearing political shop-talk, comments about Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki, speculation about Iran, and talk about of the "surge." That's a good outcome for the President, given what the poll numbers say about the American people's desire for some form of withdrawal.

It's also beginning to look like there may be some high-stakes poker between Bush and McCain - tragically, with American soldiers as poker chips. McCain's been positioning himself for months as the guy who could have managed this war correctly. Since October he's been calling for 20,000 more troops, so that he could argue in 2008 that we would have "won" if Bush had only followed his advice.

My suspicion is that Bush is unwilling to see his successor elected at the expense of his own reputation, so he's called McCain's bluff by "seeing him" the 20,000 troops. Now McCain's raising him 10,000, by reversing himself this week and suggesting an additional 30,000 troops. He also said that "a short duration and a small size would be the worst of all options."

Your call, Mr. President.

A old boss of mine used to say that the smartest person in the room was sometimes the one who seems the most foolish. He said sometimes those guys can get the better of you and you never even know it. (Think Kaiser Sosay from "The Usual Suspects.")

My boss was a pretty smart guy. Sure, this war was a bad idea and its been grievously mismanaged. But we've been distracted from the most urgent topic of all: ending it.

Withdrawal? Tonight, it's not even being discussed. Color me impressed.