Monday, November 28, 2005

I JUST FINISHED READING SEYMOUR HERSH's latest piece in The New Yorker, on the administration's plans for troop withdrawal.

Hersh has built up quite a Rolodex over 30 years of investigative journalism. Very few reporters, if any, have the kind of access he has to top-level military and intelligence sources. The negative side of that kind of reach is that almost all of these people have to be quoted anonymously: They have too much to lose by going public with this level of honesty.

The up side, though, is that this is what makes Hersh's articles so authoritative. No one can say, after reading "Up in the Air," that Hersh is part of the "liberal media" and so can't be trusted. Everything he writes comes straight from those "boots on the ground" Mary Laney was talking about.

Here is what the boots seem to be telling Hersh:

Bush will not withdraw troops in large numbers if he thinks the Iraqi military isn't up to the job of putting down the insurgency.

What Bush might do is replace whatever ground forces he does order withdrawn with Air Force personnel.

A key element of the drawdown plans, not mentioned in the President's public statements, is that the departing American troops will be replaced by American airpower. Quick, deadly strikes by U.S. warplanes are seen as a way to improve dramatically the combat capability of even the weakest Iraqi combat units.

In other words, Bush would not be lowering the U.S. military presence in Iraq; he would just be shuffling around the components of that presence.

The boots are quite skeptical about the feasibility of increasing air strikes while simultaneously handing over authority for Iraq's security to Iraqis. Who will decide what targets to strike? Will those decisions be based on military necessity or on a desire for personal revenge against particular individuals or groups?

Bush is as disconnected from reality as ever, maybe even more so. He still believes the voters gave him a mandate in the 2004 election that authorizes him to do Iraq the way he wants to do Iraq. He does not want to hear anything that contradicts what he believes to be true. And he is deeply convinced that God put him in the White House to fight terrorism, and that the way he has chosen to fight terrorism is the way God wants him to fight terrorism.

Current and former military and intelligence officials have told me that the President remains convinced that it is his personal mission to bring democracy to Iraq, and that he is impervious to political pressure, even from fellow Republicans. They also say that he disparages any information that conflicts with his view of how the war is proceeding.

Bush's closest advisers have long been aware of the religious nature of his policy commitments. In recent interviews, one former senior official, who served in Bush's first term, spoke extensively about the connection between the President's religious faith and his view of the war in Iraq. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the former official said, he was told that Bush felt that "God put me here" to deal with the war on terror. The President's belief was fortified by the Republican sweep in the 2002 congressional elections; Bush saw the victory as a purposeful message from God that "he's the man," the former official said. Publicly, Bush depicted his reƫlection as a referendum on the war; privately, he spoke of it as another manifestation of divine purpose.

The former senior official said that after the election he made a lengthy inspection visit to Iraq and reported his findings to Bush in the White House: "I said to the President, 'We're not winning the war.' And he asked, 'Are we losing?' I said, 'Not yet.' " The President, he said, "appeared displeased" with that answer.

"I tried to tell him," the former senior official said. "And he couldn't hear it."

Military insiders are very worried about whether the Army is going to be able to hold up under the strain.

There are grave concerns within the military about the capability of the U.S. Army to sustain two or three more years of combat in Iraq. Michael O'Hanlon, a specialist on military issues at the Brookings Institution, told me, "The people in the institutional Army feel they don't have the luxury of deciding troop levels, or even participating in the debate. They're planning on staying the course until 2009. I can't believe the Army thinks that it will happen, because there's no sustained drive to increase the size of the regular Army." O'Hanlon noted that "if the President decides to stay the present course in Iraq some troops would be compelled to serve fourth and fifth tours of combat by 2007 and 2008, which could have serious consequences for morale and competency levels."

If Bush and Cheney are furious with Rep. Murtha for his outspokenness about how badly the war is going, they have no one to blame but themselves. And that goes double for Bush himself.

Many of the military's most senior generals are deeply frustrated, but they say nothing in public, because they don't want to jeopardize their careers. The Administration has "so terrified the generals that they know they won't go public," a former defense official said. A retired senior C.I.A. officer with knowledge of Iraq told me that one of his colleagues recently participated in a congressional tour there. The legislators were repeatedly told, in meetings with enlisted men, junior officers, and generals that "things were fucked up." But in a subsequent teleconference with Rumsfeld, he said, the generals kept those criticisms to themselves.

One person with whom the Pentagon's top commanders have shared their private views for decades is Representative John Murtha, of Pennsylvania, the senior Democrat on the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. The President and his key aides were enraged when, on November 17th, Murtha gave a speech in the House calling for a withdrawal of troops within six months. The speech was filled with devastating information. For example, Murtha reported that the number of attacks in Iraq has increased from a hundred and fifty a week to more than seven hundred a week in the past year. He said that an estimated fifty thousand American soldiers will suffer "from what I call battle fatigue" in the war, and he said that the Americans were seen as "the common enemy" in Iraq. He also took issue with one of the White House's claims -- that foreign fighters were playing the major role in the insurgency. Murtha said that American soldiers "haven't captured any in this latest activity" -- the continuing battle in western Anbar province, near the border with Syria. "So this idea that they're coming in from outside, we still think there's only seven per cent."

Confronted with reality, Bush simply retreats further into his fantasy world.

"The President is more determined than ever to stay the course," the former defense official said. "He doesn't feel any pain. Bush is a believer in the adage 'People may suffer and die, but the Church advances.' " He said that the President had become more detached, leaving more issues to Karl Rove and Vice-President Cheney. "They keep him in the gray world of religious idealism, where he wants to be anyway," the former defense official said. Bush's public appearances, for example, are generally scheduled in front of friendly audiences, most often at military bases. Four decades ago, President Lyndon Johnson, who was also confronted with an increasingly unpopular war, was limited to similar public forums. "Johnson knew he was a prisoner in the White House," the former official said, "but Bush has no idea."

There's much more. Read it all here.

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