Monday, November 21, 2005

Iraq: read the speeches, not just spin

Vice President Dick Cheney was right to lament about headline writers in his speech to AEI today. The latest headline I see on CNN is that he continued the administration's "retreat" from criticizing Jack Murtha. Byron York over at NRO's the Corner noted something similar, so it's not a preposterous excerpt to draw from the speech. But, a speech of this import rerquires a lot more analysis.

The vice president said some aspects of the current Iraq debate were legitimate. He contrasted those aspects with what he does not appreciate. Note the careful, deliberate use of language as he structures his position:

What is not legitimate and what I will again say is dishonest and reprehensible is the suggestion by some U.S. senators that the president of the United States or any member of his administration purposely misled the American people on prewar intelligence.

These are elected officials who had access to the intelligence materials. They are known to have a high opinion of their own analytical capabilities.

"Misled" is accompanied by the adverb "purposely", which distinguishes misleading inadvertantly -- say, as with inexcuseable "group think" -- from something more sinister. Further, he references in the next paragraph elected officials who "had access" to intelligence materials. Many U.S. Senators did not take advantage of the fuller, classified NIE from October, 2002. Only a handful of senators went to a session to read that document, with some contradicting opinions from experts. Most relied upon the less conflicted executive summary.

This is an interesting allusion to make, because it may have resulted from a close reading of a Washington Post analysis last weekened. That story was headlined: "Asterisks Dot White House's Iraq Argument". The general tone of that article was not favorable for the Bush administration, but I believe Cheney uses one element to point back at Senators now raising questions about intelligence:

The lawmakers are partly to blame for their ignorance. Congress was entitled to view the 92-page National Intelligence Estimate about Iraq before the October 2002 vote. But, as The Washington Post reported last year, no more than six senators and a handful of House members read beyond the five-page executive summary.

Another interesting nuance in language is the coupling of "terror states" and "terrorists". This administration frequently estanlished at the least a tentative link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda before the war. I believe this paragraph is designed to label Saddam's regime as a "terror state" -- correctly, of course -- so as to reinforce an aspect of the linkage argument:

As the president has said, terrorists and terror states do not reveal threats with fair notice, in formal declarations. And responding to such enemies only after they have struck first is not self-defense, it is suicide.

As Tucker Carlson has pointed out, no one of real consequence bought the radical Islamist linkage before the Iraq war. However, it was repeated enough that the majority of Americans believed there was a connection -- many even believing that Iraqis were on the planes on 9/11. That may have been the most consequential as well as the target demographic.

More exacting language about potential morale problems that some in the Pentagon have claimed:

One might also argue that untruthful charges against the commander in chief have an insidious effect on the war effort itself. I'm unwilling to say that only because I know the character of the United States armed forces, men and women who are fighting the war on terror in Iraq, Afghanistan and many other fronts.

Cheney won't make the argument, but he certainly will bring it up. Further, this is a clear gesture to encourage pundits and bloggers on the right to claim that some of the questions raised about the Bush administration before the war are "insidious" in effect. "Insidious" is a very strong word, and the kind of word that will attract the attention of a well read person who articulates with skill. The "untruthful charges" have been established in this speech, stating that the president "pusposely mislead" the public with intelligence.

Only the radical fringe of the left has advanced that idea, as stated, with any fervor. More moderate voices say that the president and the White House were overly selective in what intelligence they used to build a case for going to war. I believe that this was a result of their fear that Saddam was a clear and present danger to the United States.

I also believe that they made a series of honest errors that are nonetheless terrible in their effect. The most honest evaluation on prewar intelligence I can muster must also include the aforementioned Senators, who did not read the full NIE. They share a great deal of blame for the hasty decision to go to war.

At least one excerpt from the acclaimed book "Plan of Attack", by Bob Woodward, does hint at the president misleading the public before Iraq -- though perhaps innocently, we cannot say for certain.

Before I cover what Woodward reported, I'd like to refer to a Newsweek campaign account from 2004:

In a brilliant jujitsu move, the Bush White House decided not to try to rebut the book, but rather to embrace it. An aide—possibly Nicolle Devenish, the campaign communications director, though others credited strategist Matthew Dowd—suggested they post the book on the campaign Web site under "Suggested Reading." The strategy, said adman Mark McKinnon with a laugh, was "love the book you're with." Or, as he put it, "Let's love it to death."

Woodward's analysis about a TV interview in April, 2002:

"So whether [Saddam] allows the inspectors in or not, he is on the list to be attacked?" McDonald asked. "He's the next target?"

"You keep trying to put --" Bush said, then restarted his sentence. "You're one of those clever reporters that keeps trying to put words in my mouth."

"Far from that, Mr. President."

"Well, I'm afraid you do, sir. But nevertheless, you've had my answer on this subject." The prodding took Bush into dangerous territory as he added, "And I have no plans to attack on my desk." Though technically true, it obscured the direct and personal nature of his involvement in the war planning.

At this point, I wish to further digress and add that the president's involvement in war planning also made the war more likely. But, back to V.P. Cheney.

Cheney moves from Iraq as a "terror state" under Saddam to a current haven for "terrorists", to which any reasonable observer will agree:

Their goal in that region is to gain control of a country so they have a base from which to launch attacks and to wage war against governments that do not meet their demands.

This has been a stated goal of al Qaeda since that group's inception. Al Qaeda wishes to control a state to build a Caliphate for Wahhabi Islam. Further, they wish that state to be Arabic and to include Mecca and Medina, currently cities of Saudi Arabia.

There were those (at State and CIA) who cautioned against an invasion in Iraq because it would make that nation a potential hotbed for al Qaeda. This argument is related in Cheney's own words:

Some have suggested that by liberating Iraq from Saddam Hussein we simply stirred up a hornet's nest. They overlook a fundamental fact: We were not in Iraq on September 11th, 2001, and the terrorists hit us anyway.

Here we have one of the vice president's worst arguments from the entire speech. Distinguishing between the sun and moon may be no test of vision, seeing a hornet's nest in Iraq, today, is no leap of analytical brilliance. The vice president would argue, perhaps if he is willing to admit the hornet's nest, that the violence is a negative, but it was a necessary one. Why?

Whenever Bush or Cheney use 9/11, they are digging into raw, emotional support they still hope that they enjoy. However, this argument is absurd. We had not declared war on Canada and Mars before 9/11, and the terrorists hit us anyway. Instead of the added nuance the vice president added earlier, with "terror states" and "terrorists", September 11th, Iraq and "terrorists" find their way into one sentence.

The vice president blurs another line between Iraq and "terrorists" by not accepting the nationalistic element of the insurgency. The fact of ante bellum Iraq is that it was no hotbed for al Qaeda. Further, the very idea of a secularist though brutal dictator working with radical, religious terrorists raised doubt before the war. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi operated in regions of that country that Saddam did not control, but Zarqawi was not working with al Qaeda at that point:

Now they're making a stand in Iraq, testing our resolve, trying to intimidate the United States into abandoning our friends and permitting the overthrow of this new Middle Eastern democracy.

More of the same, so it seems, from the vice president near the conclusion of his speech. Blur the line between "terrorists" now and "terror states" then. Justify the continued war in Iraq by bringing up September 11th and al Qaeda -- though we all know the truth about that as a justification for the war in 2002 and 2003. These arguments derive from political calculus: they may work, they may not.

The battle we face now is the horror that Cheney and his band imagined in 2002. The White House continues with political calculus while our country may face a looming existential challenge.

In June of this year, both the New York Times and Newsweek reported:

A new classified assessment by the Central Intelligence Agency says Iraq may prove to be an even more effective training ground for Islamic extremists than Afghanistan was in Al Qaeda's early days, because it is serving as a real-world laboratory for urban combat.

There was one other major speech about Iraq today. It was delivered by Senator Joe Biden (D., Del.) Though the senator's remarks were prepared in advance of Cheney's speech, Biden clearly had an idea what the vice president would say and how he would argue against the V.P.

Joe Biden's remarks

Biden delivered his speech to the Council on Foreign Relations. His prepared remarks can be found on his website.

Withdrawal, at least of some troops, is in the air. There are military plans filed with numerous options for a major reduction of forces in the country. Biden appears to speak with some confidence that these plans will be realized:

Here is my conviction: in 2006, American troops will begin to leave Iraq in large numbers. By the end of the year, I believe we will have redeployed at least 50,000 troops. In 2007, a significant number of the remaining 100,000 American soldiers will follow.

Biden does not dwell on the lead up to Iraq -- perhaps for an obvious reason -- but he does say that we cannot withdraw en masse, as John Murtha suggested with notable scale and immediacy. The senator believes our national interests and security now require additional work in Iraq.

I still believe we can preserve our fundamental security interests in Iraq as we begin to redeploy our forces.

This is one argument that Biden and Cheney share. However, the senator is highly critical of the administration. Success requires:

As I have been urging for some time, that will require as many changes at home as on the ground. The gap between the Administration’s rhetoric and the reality of Iraq has opened a huge credibility chasm with the American people.

Joe Biden has been arguing that there was a credibility chasm between what Bush says and what is actually going on. He said that in June, 2005: Google: Biden, and "credibility chasm". He said that before Katrina, before the poll numbers jumped off the cliff.

He appears to have been prescient.

Now, juxtapose Cheney's remarks in general with Biden's. Compare the tense in general, if possible. Cheney's speech remained a justification for the past, present and future. Biden's remarks focused on the current and future conflict in much greater depth:

Instead, we need to refocus our mission on preserving America’s fundamental interests in Iraq.

There are two of them: We must ensure Iraq does not become what it wasn’t before the war: a haven for terrorists. And we must do what we can to prevent a full-blown civil war that turns into a regional war.

The senator then outlines the beginnings of his plan:

One, we must help forge a political settlement that gives all of Iraq’s major groups a stake in keeping the country together.

Two, we must strengthen the capabilities of Iraq’s government and revamp the reconstruction program to deliver real benefits.

Three, we must accelerate the training of Iraqi security forces and transfer control to them.

There is an ominous Catch 22 about Iraq that Biden also points out: more troops would help make Iraq more secure and more troops would fuel the insurgency. Also, we both need and do not have more troops for the job.

Two years ago, even one year ago, Iraqis were prepared to accept an even larger American presence if that’s what it took to bring security and real improvements to their lives.

Our failure to do just that has fueled growing Iraqi frustration. A liberation is increasingly felt as an occupation. And we risk creating a culture of dependency, especially among Iraqi security forces.

Even if more troops still made sense, we don’t have more to give. In fact, we cannot sustain what we have now beyond next spring unless we extend deployment times beyond 12 months, send soldiers back for third, fourth, and fifth tours or pull forces from other regions.

Contrast the conclusions that each leader arrived at. Cheney:

We understand the continuing dangers to civilization. And we have the resources, the strength and the moral courage to overcome those dangers and lay the foundations for a better world.

And Biden's remarks:

And the American people want us to succeed. They want it badly. If the Administration listens, if it levels, and if it leads, it can still redeem their faith.

The real question we now live with is: which sense outlined in either conclusion will influence policy? Rhetoric or a policy change?

The former will accomplish nothing and relies on some lucky breaks. The latter is inevitable -- yet undefined.


Blogger Ezzie said...

Yet Biden's is rhetoric as well. He sets goals, with no means of accomplishing them. Personally, I think this has all gotten a bit stupid. Everybody is so used to immediate answers to everything, they've become spoiled: If something takes a few years, they're not interested - they'd rather whine, start a fight, and change the plans; again and again and again. Finally, when everything is said and done, the latest plan finished the project and claims success - when the original plan would have taken 1/3 the time.

2:02 AM  
Blogger copy editor said...

It has gotten a bit stupid, but I think that is because of the dificulty of the situation.

We're in a bad fix because of slow reconstruction/security efforts. Have you read James Fallows in the Atlantic this month? It's on the Iraqi army, or lack there of. Let me know if you want me to email it to you, it's a subscriber-only article. My email is on my blogger page.

9:51 AM  

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