The New York Times and the Washington Post both have editorials today about the Bush administration's dysfunctional Iraq policy (dysfunctional, that is, for everyone but investment bankers, defense contractors, and corporate CEOs).
The White House has always had just one way of dealing with failure in Iraq: redefine success -- either by goal-switching or by lowering the bar for measuring success. The latest example of the first was the so-called "surge," which was supposed to facilitate political reconciliation by reducing sectarian violence. Well, sectarian violence is down (for reasons having little to do with the military escalation), but political reconciliation is still nowhere in sight. And as the Times editorialist writes, there is still no way out:
Without a serious effort at national conciliation, American troops are just holding down the lid on a pressure cooker. Iraq’s rival militias, the insurgents, the bitter sectarian resentments and the meddling neighbors haven’t gone anywhere. Consider this all too familiar horror: yesterday, police said they pulled six bodies from the Tigris River about 25 miles south of Baghdad. They were handcuffed and showed signs of having been tortured. And five, including a child, had been beheaded.
Perhaps 160,000 American troops could hold down the overall casualty numbers indefinitely, but they cannot wipe away that sort of hatred. That’s the job of Iraq’s leaders. Either way, the American military doesn’t have enough troops for such an occupation without end, and the American Treasury can’t keep spending $10 billion a month to maintain it.
Mr. Bush’s escalation was sold as a way to buy Iraqi politicians breathing room to finally address the problems driving the sectarian violence: by agreeing on an equitable division of oil wealth, rules for provincial elections and ways to bring more Sunnis and former Baath Party members into the Shiite-dominated government.
Instead, Iraq’s politicians — and their American backers — have squandered the time and the best efforts of American troops. Mr. Bush’s generals are so frustrated that they’ve begun to complain publicly about the fecklessness of Iraq’s leaders. The ever-feckless White House, rather than looking for ways to compel Iraq’s leaders to perform, is lessening the pressure.
It's even worse than lessening the pressure -- the White House is doing a 360 on what it demanded of Iraq's leaders just a little over six months ago, when Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Baghdad to tell Iraq's government that "the clock is ticking":
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates arrived in Baghdad on Thursday to convey a blunt message to Iraq's leadership three months after the United States began an increase of more than 28,000 troops in the country. "The clock is ticking," he said.
Gates said he will urge Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other leaders in meetings Friday to act more quickly and boldly to achieve reconciliation between the majority Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish political factions -- warning that U.S. troops will not remain in the country indefinitely.
"The Iraqis have to know that this isn't an open-ended commitment," Gates told reporters. ..."
Six and a half months later:
The White House announced Monday that it had reached a deal with the Iraqi government to negotiate a formal agreement defining long-term relations between the two nations, including the legal status of American military forces remaining in Iraq.
The "Declaration of Principles" signed Monday via video link by President Bush and the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, does not specify the eventual number of American troops nor the length of their deployment. That issue is certain to be central in the 2008 presidential campaign that will be under way as American and Iraqi negotiators work toward a July deadline on a treaty [emphasis added] governing relations between the two countries.
But senior administration officials stressed the significance of the agreement signed Monday, saying that it was leading to a far more durable political, economic and security relationship than is possible under the current United Nations resolution, which serves as the foundation under international law for the American-led effort in Iraq.
"I think it's important to the people of Iraq," said Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, the president's coordinator for Iraq issues. "It signals a commitment of both their government and the United States to an enduring relationship based on mutual interests.
"The basic message here should be clear: Iraq is increasingly able to stand on its own," General Lute said. "That's very good news, but it won't have to stand alone."
Which is to say, the American people are still not prepared to wait forever, but Pres. Bush is. And he is willing and eager to make future U.S. administrations wait forever, as well -- or, as the Dallas Morning News delicately puts it, "Mr. Bush has made it his goal to turn over to his successor in January 2009 an Iraq stable enough that even a Democratic president will not feel politically compelled to pull out rapidly." Or at all, since those permanent military bases and guarantees of "preferential treatment for American investors" will make it a bit difficult for "even a Democratic president" to end the U.S. occupation of Iraq:
Those negotiations will address thorny issues such as what mission U.S. forces in Iraq will pursue, whether they will establish permanent bases, and what kind of immunity, if any, should be granted to private security contractors such as Blackwater Worldwide. Gen. Lute said a special negotiating team would seek to craft such an agreement by July 31.
The two Iraqi officials said that under the proposed formula, Iraq would get full responsibility for internal security, and U.S. troops would relocate to bases outside the cities. Iraqi officials foresee a long-term presence of about 50,000 U.S. troops, down from the current figure of more than 160,000.
Mirembe Nantongo, spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, said any detailed discussion of bases and investment preferences was "way, way, way ahead of where we are at the moment."
Right. The "detailed discussion" is for that "treaty" mentioned above. Except that it isn't a treaty. It's an "executive agreement":
Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki signed a declaration pledging that their governments would put in place a long-term political and security pact sometime next year. "The shape and size of any long-term, or longer than 2008, U.S. presence in Iraq will be a key matter for negotiation between the two parties, Iraq and the United States," Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, the White House official in charge of Iraq war matters, said at the briefing unveiling the agreement.
What Bush will almost surely be pushing for is permanent U.S. bases in Iraq, enshrined in a pact he can sign a few months before he leaves office. And here, as they used to say, is the beauty part: As far as Bush is concerned, he doesn't have to seek congressional ratification for such an enduring commitment of American force, treasure and lives.
"We don't anticipate now that these negotiations will lead to the status of a formal treaty which would then bring us to formal negotiations or formal inputs from the Congress," Lute said. The administration is looking to sign a status-of-forces agreement, which requires Senate ratification if it's classified as a treaty but not if it's classified as an executive agreement. One need not be able to solve the riddle of the Sphinx to guess which of those classifications the Bush White House will go for.
Put another way, George W. Bush will continue to be president even after he leaves office:
With a 30 percent approval rating from Americans who want to get out of Iraq, George Bush, a majority of one, has decided unilaterally to keeps us there even after he leaves office. ...
In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez is angling to become president for life. Back here, on the subject of Iraq, George Bush has figured out how to manage that without any formalities.