The flip flop and the folly



It's generally not a productive use of time to train one's attention on President Bush anymore; his serial failures are already in the history books, and his sub-Nixonian poll rating will barely budge during his final 50 days in office. Nevertheless, every once in awhile, a news story comes along to spotlight the chasm between promise and performance, to remind us anew of the colossal waste in blood and treasure that his war team has inflicted on this country.

Case in point: The big news last Thursday (largely overlooked on these shores because of the Thanksgiving holiday, and the material lust of Black Friday) that the Iraqi Parliament has formally approved a "Status of Forces" security agreement - a breakthrough document, negotiated with the Bush administration, which mandates a timetable for the withdrawal of "all U.S. combat forces" from urban areas by June 30, 2009, and a timetable for the withdrawal of "all U.S. forces" from Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011. The pact reportedly awaits imminent approval from the three-member Presidency Council, and is slated to take effect one month from now.

Notice anything significant about those provisions?

How about the fact that Bush, as a sign of political weakness, coughed up one of his core convictions; that he now supports a troop pullout timetable after having long been against it; that he has engineered a breathtaking flip-flop worthy of the performance artists in Cirque du Soliel?

The following Bush quotes can now be consigned to the trash, along with that "Mission Accomplished" banner:

1. On July 15, Bush said he opposed "an artificial timetable for withdrawal."

2. One month earlier, he stated that "there should be no definite timetable...We'll be making our decisions based upon the conditions on the ground, the recommendation of our commanders, without an artificial timetable set by politics."  

3. On May 1, 2007, he sought to scold the Democratic lawmakers who were trying to enact a pullout timetable. He stated: "It makes no sense to tell the enemy when you plan to start withdrawing. All the terrorists will have to do is mark their calendars...Setting a deadline for withdrawal is setting a date for failure, and this would be irresponsible."

4. On April 23, 2007, he stated: "I will strongly reject an artificial timetable for withdrawal, and/or Washington politicians trying to tell those who wear the uniform how to do their job."

5. On June 24, 2005, he stated: "It doesn't make any sense to have a timetable. You know, if you give a timetable, you're conceding too much to the enemy."

Yet now he has caved on a timetable, which apparently now makes sense to him.

Section 24 of the Status of Forces Agreement spells out those dates, and even states that "the United States recognizes the sovereign right of the Government of Iraq to request the departure of United States Forces from Iraq at any time" prior to the final pullout date of Dec. 31, 2011. And there is no wiggle room for the U.S. That 2011 pullout date is inviolate, regardless of the "conditions on the ground." That particular Bush phrase appears nowhere in Section 24.   

All told, as Iraq expert and former ambassador Peter Galbraith put it the other day, this security pact "represents a stunning and humiliating reversal" for the lame-duck administration; indeed, he said, "the confluence of events leading to the agreement underscores the folly of President Bush's lost Iraq war."

The Iraqis, who generally view the U.S. troops as an occupation force, are calling this pact "the Withdrawal Agreement," and what's most noteworthy is that Bush, by capitulating, has essentially endorsed the broad outlines of Barack Obama's belief that fixed dates are in everyone's best interests. (And, by caving on the troop timetable, Bush is also apparently "waving the white flag of surrender," which is how Sarah Palin sought to smear the Obama-Biden ticket when it proposed a troop pullout timetable.)

Bush is naturally trying to spin the security pact as some sort of triumph - more on that in a moment - but the foreign policy experts aren't fooled. As Joost Hiltermann, an Istanbul-based analyst for the nonpartisan International Crisis Group, told the press last week, "It is very hard for the Bush administration to spin this as a victory; it's more an acknowledgment of realities that are forcing American forces to draw down."  

Basically, the pullout timetable clarifies the tragic end game: We will leave - having spent in excess of $1 trillion, and having suffered well over 4000 U.S. deaths and 30,000 injuries - without having discovered any weapons of mass destructions, and without having achieved Bush's declared goal of establishing a new democracy in the heart of the Middle East.

We will leave because our military presence no longer serves the needs of the dominant pro-Iranian Shiite religious parties, nor the needs of the prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, who fronts for those government parties. They want us out. They even persuaded the Bush team to endorse language that bars the U.S. from using Iraqi territory to launch attacks on other nations - a prohibition that serves Iran's interests quite nicely. Heckuva job, prexy.

Yet despite all this, the Bush team is spinning away as usual. Witness the assertion, by White House press secretary Dana Perino, that the pullout timetable is really a signifier of the president's success, because it means "that the conditions are such now that we are able to celebrate the victory that we've had so far."


As Tony Soprano said in Season One, "the con never stops."