The Utter Uselessness of the Petraeus Report

Just a few weeks from now, the most eagerly anticipated premier of the year will finally be here, complete with fierce disagreement among the critics and relentless hype by the producers, cameras furiously clicking when the starring players emerge in public. That premier is the report coming in mid-September from U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and, more importantly, Gen. David Petraeus, commander of American forces there. If you're expecting a surprise ending, you shouldn't hold your breath.

But it isn't just the report itself that is utterly predictable. The script for what will come afterward is a sure thing, too.

Unfortunately for President Bush, the public is approaching Petraeus's report with a healthy degree of skepticism. A CNN poll last week asked respondents this question: "As you may know, in September the top U.S. commander in Iraq will report to the President and Congress about how the war is going. Do you trust him to report what's really going on in Iraq without making the situation sound better than it actually is, or don't you feel that way?" A majority, 53 percent, said they don't trust Petraeus (who wasn't named) to report what's really going on. After four years of assurances about the "progress" being made in Iraq, the American people have just about had it.

When asked to respond to the poll, the White House telegraphed its strategy. Spokesman Tony Snow said he hoped "people do not try to engage in personal attacks on Gen. Petraeus or Ambassador Crocker." In other words, anyone who criticizes this report will be accused of personally attacking Petraeus.

Without many arguments left in the well, the White House will be hiding behind Petraeus, just as President Bush has been since the general took the job seven months ago. At first the administration didn't want Petraeus to publicly testify about his report, perhaps because it was concerned he might be a little too forthcoming about what is really happening in Iraq. But now the administration seems to have come to its senses, realizing that either Democrats will be cowed into deference by the blinding glare created by all those ribbons and the glittering aura of Petraeus' reputation, or they will question him harshly, at which point they can be accused of hating the troops and their saintly, infallible commander.

Don't interpret my sarcasm to mean that I think Gen. Petraeus is cut from the same dishonest cloth as the rest of the Bush administration. But by this time he is, most certainly, part of that administration. There has never been much dispute over the fact that throughout his career he has been a capable and accomplished, even brilliant, officer. But Petraeus was selected for his current job because of his willingness to support "the surge" (even today, saying it gives you that little shot of testosterone, the scent of victory wafting into your nose). And if he has any desire to keep his job, he will be sure to deliver the message the White House wants.

Not that they're taking any chances. Last week the Los Angeles Times reported, "Despite Bush's repeated statements that the report will reflect evaluations by Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, administration officials said it would actually be written by the White House." Well knock me over with a feather. The Bush White House, exercising an iron grip over the message delivered by people who are supposed to offer their assessments based on their professional knowledge and an objective reality? Who'd have thought we'd see the day?

For all the repeated incantations of "Let's wait and see what Gen. Petraeus reports in September," there's little doubt about what he'll say. The report, in whatever form it is finally delivered, will caution that we have a long way to go, that serious problems remain, and that we wish we weren't where we are today. However, it will say we're making important progress, and we need to stay in Iraq for a good long time -- at the bare minimum, until January of 2009, when the boiling cauldron of hatred and misery that is Iraq becomes some other president's problem. The details of the report could vary (contents may settle during shipping, after all), but if you think its ultimate conclusions will be something other than a validation of "the surge" and the Bush administration's larger strategy, you haven't been paying attention.

And since this White House is writing it, we can be sure that many parts of the report will turn out to be either absurdly misleading or purely false. As the indefatigable journalists at McClatchy recently reported, "U.S. officials say the number of civilian casualties in the Iraqi capital is down 50 percent. But U.S. officials declined to provide specific numbers, and statistics gathered by McClatchy Newspapers don't support the claim ... No pattern of improvement is discernible for violence during the five months of the surge. In January, the last full month before the surge began, 438 people were killed in the capital in bombings. In February, that number jumped to 520. It declined in March to 323, but jumped again in April, to 414." Expect the Iraq report to contain heavy doses of statistical chicanery and shameless spin, with relevant facts conveniently absent.

When the report is released, the nests of conservative partisanship on television, radio, and newspaper op-ed pages will buzz with affirmation. "The surge is working," they will declare, and victory will be ours in the end if we remain firm, turgid, engorged with strength and will and resolve. Considering that the front-runner for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination recently wrote in all seriousness that the United States was just about to win the Vietnam War in 1972 when we got soft and pulled out in an ignominious victorius interruptus, you can be sure this argument will find eager adherents among those on the right jonesing for their latest dose of Iraq Viagra.

As for those who disagree and raise doubts, they will find their attempts to marshal facts and evidence met with the usual infantile arguments ("Fight them over there!") and inevitable accusations of insufficient fealty to the troops. If nothing else, you can count on that.

And where will we have gotten? Nowhere. American men and women will continue to return home in flag-draped coffins, their young lives sacrificed on the altar of this endless nightmare, brought to us by men with minds so twisted they don't even realize what a mistake it all was. There is no other undertaking in American history that combines the crushing volume of delusion, dishonesty, bad faith, incompetence, and unforeseen yet utterly predictable consequences that is this war. As long as George W. Bush strides purposefully each day into the Oval Office, consumed with looking strong and holding fast, interpreting every feeling that rumbles in his gut as a telegraph from God informing him that he is right in all things, nothing will change.

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