Beyond the Baker rumor

A rumor making the rounds among those close to the Bush administration is instructive about both Washington, D.C. and the White House. The story goes that former secretary of state and co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group James Baker was in the Oval Office briefing the president and vice president on what that report would recommend. Vice President Cheney was so upset by what he was hearing that he abruptly stood up to leave the room. “Sit down, Dick,” Mr. Baker growled. “You need to hear this.”

A rumor making the rounds among those close to the Bush administration is instructive about both Washington, D.C. and the White House. The story goes that former secretary of state and co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group James Baker was in the Oval Office briefing the president and vice president on what that report would recommend. Vice President Cheney was so upset by what he was hearing that he abruptly stood up to leave the room. “Sit down, Dick,” Mr. Baker growled. “You need to hear this.”

Whether or not the story is true, it illustrates two important points. First, James Baker is such an icon in this town that the rumor is believable. Second, it is clear that the Bush administration didn’t get the message of the midterm elections or of the Iraq Study Group.

Newspaper deadlines being what they are, this column is being written before the president speaks to the nation on Wednesday evening. It is based on advance news reports, White House leaks and speculation. If the president does not say what I expect him to I’ll use the Emily defense from “Saturday Night Live” — “Never mind.”

But if the president does announce a “surge” of troops as large as 20,000 over time it is clear he has chosen to ignore messages from voters, the Iraq Study Group, many members of his own party and most of his military advisers.

The nation has reached a consensus that President Bush’s prosecution of the war in Iraq is not working. The president seems to have heard that part. But in choosing his “surge” strategy he is clearly ignoring voters’ desire to begin winding this war down. It appears the president has chosen to throw his lot with the neo-cons, many of whom advocated more troops in the beginning when it might have done some good. Military experts who once argued for a larger force now say that window has closed. Sending more Americans to do essentially the same job they have been doing will only make 2007 an even bloodier year than 2006 as more of our troops get caught up in the sectarian violence sweeping Iraq.

As Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) pointed out on one of his weekend talk show appearances, we’ve tried a version of this strategy before. We’ve moved large numbers of troops into Baghdad twice, with a short-term result each time. But eventually those troops have to leave, regardless of administration statements that now we’re going to secure an area and then stick around to keep it that way. (That is, by the way, in direct conflict with White House leaks that we’ll have all this wrapped up in November.) Once the troops leave, the insurgents come back and the civil war flares up again. Americans have made clear they won’t stand for that. They are tired of counting coffins and they are tired of America looking ineffectual.

The notion that more firepower will bring democracy to Iraq is an idealized goal most Americans have decided does not work. Serious foreign policy thinkers like Brent Scowcroft worry that chasing that dream could produce decades of conflict, and that is not what America is asking for. Even supporters of the president suggest it will take two to three years for the so-called surge strategy to work. If that is true it will make almost any Democratic candidate for president a favorite — unless the Republicans choose a candidate willing to completely break with this administration on the war.

There is virtually nothing the Democratic Congress can do to prevent the president from pursuing this policy. Their only tool, cutting funding, would be political suicide with troops under fire. Democrats must send a clear message that they do not support the president’s escalation of the war but that their hands are tied. (It is an escalation. “Surge” is a nice piece of word-smithing, but Americans get the joke. It is escalation, pure and simple.) Democrats can argue that we’ve already wasted billions of dollars in Iraq and now we’re talking about spending billions more to create jobs there. A noble goal, one we should have done a better job of three years ago, but a message sure to build resentment among those who want to see a stronger economy at home.

Defenders say this president believes history will validate his policies. I certainly can’t see into the future, but the message I’m hearing from America gives no support to that dream. I suggest history will say this president listened to the wrong messengers.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.
E-mail:
bgoddard@thehill.com