I deliberately waited a while to write anything about Bush’s latest “big speech” on Iraq, because it’s generally more interesting to weigh reactions after the spin has died down and public opinion has begun to congeal. But I don’t think there’s any possible conclusion to reach other than that the whole Bush “new direction” has been a dismal and completely unnecessary flop.The speech itself was most notable in that it did not even remotely live up to the White House’s own advance billing. We were told Bush was finally and fully going to embrace the counter-insurgency strategy that so many military experts had been urging on him for at least a year. Instead, we got nothing on that front other than a ritual recitation of the barest bones of the strategy, the clear-hold-build formula (supplemented by a lame-o dollop of money to throw at unemployed Iraqis). We were told he’d admit the failure of his old policies. Instead, he allowed as how 2006 wasn’t exactly a great year in Iraq.I personally expected Bush to provide one “surprise,” by announcing some token of a political breakthrough in Iraq–a “benchmark” actually met–such as an impending deal on distribution of oil revenues, but we didn’t get that, either. And that’s a reflection of Bush’s weird and continuing inversion of the growing feeling in this country that we should withdraw sooner rather than later if Iraqis don’t begin to live up to their own responsibilities for self-government. Bush is essentially saying we’ll withdraw later rather than sooner–and maybe never withdraw–if they continue to polarize along sectarian lines. He’s not stopping or preventing civil war; he’s enabling it.For that reason, the most bizarre feature of the speech was Bush’s insistence that the whole “surge” was simply an effort to support an Iraqi government initiative to control violence in Baghdad and Anbar Province; indeed, he expressed great confidence that Maliki was finally biting the bullet and was willing to remove “restrictions” on troop operations that might involve conflict with Shi’a militias. But right up to the moment of the speech, Maliki’s staff was out there constantly saying they didn’t want or need more American troops. And if they said or did anything new to suggest a sudden willingness to mess with the Mahdi Army, it didn’t make the news.Add in the factor that the new troop deployments are not that large, and will take a while to execute, and you’ve got a formula for almost certain military and political failure. So why did Bush do this? And why all the hype?You’d have to guess he seized upon the one vaguely new-sounding thing he could do that didn’t cross the self-imposed line that has divided him from Democrats, from many Republicans, from the Iraq Study Group recommendations, from Iraqi public opinion, and from U.S. public opinion; he couldn’t bring himself to begin withdrawing troops. He couldn’t realistically get the troops he needed for the kind of big-time escalation that many on the Right favored, and that commanders in the field considered essential for an actual victory over insurgents and militias. So he went with a pallid proposal linked to overblown rhetoric.I know a large and growing number of fellow progressive bloggers have seized on Bush’s saber-rattling towards Iran and Syria, followed by several mysterious military maneuvers and one weird confrontation with Iranian embassy employees in Kurdistan, to suggest with alarm that the administration is about to deliberately widen the Iraq war by provoking Tehran and Damascus into armed conflict. I have a hard time believing that; where the hell is the Pentagon going to get the resources for a regional war?But in any event, the pallid support levels, even among Republicans, for Bush’s Iraq plan, could derail it even without even affirmative action by Congress to get in the way by, say, restricting funds. The pending “no confidence” resolution now in the works could effectively reinforce the clear judgment of voters in November.UPCATEGORY: Ed Kilgore’s New Donkey
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By Ed Kilgore
Waiting for Joe Biden’s speech to a joint session of Congress to begin this week, I observed at New York that Republicans were struggling to define him consistently, which felt like a familiar problem for them:
When Bill Clinton was at the pre-Lewinsky peak of his powers, he drove Republicans nuts. They alternated between accusing him of “stealing our issues” with his triangulating pitches on welfare reform and crime and the size of government, and of being “liberal, liberal, liberal!” — a sort of boomer love child of George McGovern and Janis Joplin in a deceptive deep-fried southern packaging. Eventually the opportunity to depict him as a lying sexual predator solved the conservative dilemma, though you could argue he never stopped throwing them off-balance.
Republicans are similarly having problems getting a clear focus on Joe Biden, as the Los Angeles Times’ Noah Bierman observes:
“Alex Conant, a Republican consultant who has advised Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, [says] that his party’s two main messages about Biden are at odds with each other, blunting their impact. ‘The thing you hear Republicans say most is that he’s too old for the job, which isn’t consistent with saying he’s doing too much,’ Conant said. ‘You can’t effectively argue that he’s incompetent and that he’s too effective.'”
This dual framing of Biden was evident during the 2020 campaign, when Trump called him “Sleepy Joe” and with his usual lack of subtlety suggested his opponent was senile, even as he assailed Biden’s party of radical socialist aims. The 45th president and his surrogates squared the circle by treating Biden as the half-there puppet of the real powers, particularly the “communist” Kamala Harris.
But now, 100 days into the Biden-Harris administration, even though the new president has kept an unusually low profile, there are no signs of Harris or anyone else manipulating him. Indeed, so far his White House has been remarkably free of the factionalism that often undermines clear presidential leadership. With Clinton as president you had a White House staff famously divided (ironically, given the later reputations of the First Lady and the veep) into progressive “Rodhams” and centrist “Gores” who jockeyed for position and placed their varying stamps on administration policies. George W. Bush’s presidency was also marked by competing power centers (e.g., his terrifying vice-president and the “Boy Genius” Karl Rove); to a lesser extent, so was Obama’s. As for Donald Trump, hardly a week passed without someone — particularly his rotating cast of chiefs-of-staff — being described by “insiders” as the real power behind the throne or perhaps as the wild man’s lion-tamer.
Trump, of course, created some of the same problems for Democrats that Clinton — and now Biden — posed for Republicans. Was he the “toddler president” who ran a hollowed-out administration with no real core of convictions or goals? Or was he a putative Il Duce craftily planning an authoritarian takeover of the country? Up until the day he left office there was evidence for both descriptions. Indeed, the coda of his presidency, the January 6 Capitol riot, was variously regarded as a fascist coup attempt and a clown show.
Trump’s successor will have an opportunity in his first address to a joint session of Congress to add to the impression that he is quietly but firmly in charge of the executive branch, and has imposed order on his fractious party as he unveils yet another massive proposal. Kamala Harris will be sitting (and often standing and applauding) behind him, likely looking more like an adoring protégée than any sort of puppet-master. But if he stumbles at all, or looks tired, or says things that supposedly centrist Democrats like him don’t believe, the knees of many elephants will jerk and out will come the mockery of the old man who is a reassuring front for the Marxists actually running the country.
Such confusion if it continues will be of great service to Biden, much like the current Republican tendency to focus on irrelevant culture-war themes while a mostly united Democratic Party enacts legislative initiatives of a magnitude we haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan’s first year in office. For all their political gifts, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — who, lest we forget, both had a much more firmly Democratic Senate and House the first two years of their presidencies — couldn’t come close to the mastery of Congress Biden has exhibited up until now. As Republicans watch Biden’s speech, they should soberly realize that before long it may not matter that much if they bust up the Democratic trifecta in 2022. The damage to GOP policies and priorities wrought by “Uncle Joe” and his “senile socialist regime” could be too large to reverse by then. While Republicans fret about Trump and rage about “cancel culture,” Biden is eating their lunch.