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16 December 2005

He's livin' in his own Private Idaho

This week, President Bush gave three lengthy interviews with American television network news anchors -- the most "hardball" Friday's interview with Public Broadcasting's Jim Lehrer, who asks the President a variety of Real Adult Questions about Important Things, an almost unheard-of event in his presidency and in American television news. (You can hear the entire interview here.)

Bush is somewhat desperate to explain his Iraq policies to Americans as his popularity and confidence poll numbers spiral down the toilet.

Yet a distressing number of his answers to Lehrer's tough questions about Iraq and other national security matters were not answers at all, but explanations that, as commander-in-chief, he was constrained from discussing the details of these matters.

In defending his dogged pursuit of Victory in Iraq, he went into a lengthy explanation of his new and somewhat more complicated and subtle definition of Victory.

Vleeptron believes he has plumb lost his cotton-pickin' mind, he done gone 'round the bend, he is a few cans short of a six-pack.

According to Reuters, Australia has about one thousand soldiers in and around Iraq, including 450 troops guarding Japanese engineers in the southern Al Muthanna province.

Here, from Australia, is another view of President Bush's grasp of Reality; but first a Wikipedia introduction to the newspaper, and the article's author.

~ ~ ~

The Australian is a national daily broadsheet newspaper published by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. Headquartered in Sydney, but with bureaux around Australia, it was founded in 1964, losing money for nearly thirty years. Its circulation is still quite small, with a weekday circulation of approximately 130,000 and a Saturday circulation of approximately 295,000.

The Australian treads the Murdoch editorial line on most issues: it supports free-trade economic policy, a realpolitik approach to foreign policy, and is particularly in favour of relaxed regulation of the media sector. Unlike its downmarket stablemates, such as The Daily Telegraph and The Herald Sun, the paper adopts a somewhat liberal approach on social issues. It has a particular focus on foreign news, especially in relation to Australia's immediate neighbours in South-East Asia. On Monday it has a liftout focussing on worldwide issues, on Tuesdays an IT liftouts, Wealth and High Education liftouts on Wednesday, Media and Marketing on Thursdays and an expanded sport liftout on Fridays.

. . .

Paul Kelly is a well-known Australian political journalist and historian. He has worked in a variety of roles, and is currently "editor-at-large" for The Australian, Australia's only national broadsheet. He has also written several books on the political events of the 1970s and 1980s. His books about the Australian constitutional crisis of 1975 are regarded by many as the definitive accounts of the crisis.

His books include:

* "The Unmaking of Gough" 1976
Republished as "The Dismissal" 1983

* "The Hawke Ascendancy" 1984

* "The End of Certainty" 1992

~ ~ ~

The Australian
Friday 17 December 2005

Vision divorced
from reality

Paul Kelly, Editor-at-Large

IRAQ has become an American trauma; it has fractured the US military, polarised the political system, exposed a profound US strategic confusion and crippled George W. Bush's presidency.

There are no winners in the US from the Iraq project. The Democrats are split, marginalised by their Bush haters, trapped between the national imperative for the US to succeed and their compulsion to exploit Iraq as Bush's conclusive failure.

The US and Iraq are now chained together, a bizarre and dangerous outcome. This was never Bush's intention: he intended to liberate Iraq, not condemn himself to its politics. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had no plan for post-war Iraq for an excellent reason: the US would not be there. The idea in 2003, when Saddam Hussein fell, that Bush's second term and the integrity of US foreign policy would be determined almost solely by protracted military conflict in Iraq would have been inconceivable.

Kurt Campbell, senior vice-president of Washington's Centre of Strategic and International Studies, says: "At the strategic level the US has already lost much in Iraq. Iraq is not going to be this glistening city on the hill that the neo-cons promised. There will be sectarian violence for years to come. Most of the world sees Iraq as a profound misjudgment by the US. We have lost the high moral ground with issues such as torture. Now we are trying to salvage an acceptable outcome from a war policy that has been absolutely riddled with errors and miscalculations."

Those miscalculations arise from the triumph of vision over reality. For both its proponents and its critics, the Iraq project was not about Iraq but other agendas: about US power, the September 11 attacks, weapons of mass destruction, transforming the Middle East or de-legitimising Bush. Iraq was the playground of too many false dreams.

Divorce from reality has been the theme. In the best book on Iraq, The Assassin's Gate, journalist George Packer tells the story of the 45-minute farewell meeting between Bush and the outgoing boss of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, Jay Garner, at the White House in mid-2003.

Bush, incredibly, never asked Garner what it was actually like in Iraq. "You want to do Iran for the next one?" Bush joked. Getting into the spirit, Garner replied: "No sir, me and the boys are holding out for Cuba." Salvage is the pivotal word now. The US is holding out for the best deal, desperate to minimise the damage in Iraq to its military, its reputation, its strength and its domestic fabric. Bush is running a salvage strategy, though he doesn't use this word. His term is "victory strategy" and in four speeches over the past fortnight he has belatedly tried to revive his authority and outline a "victory" plan based upon a shift in security responsibility from US to Iraqi forces.

The foundation for Bush's exit with honour depends upon the ability of the Iraqi forces, an expectation that never entered the President's head until 2004. Rumsfeld having misread the war followed up by misreading the insurgency. Prominent US strategic analyst Anthony Cordesman, from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, says: "The US failed to treat the Iraqis as partners in the counter-insurgency effort for nearly a year and did not attempt to seriously train and equip Iraqi forces for proactive security and counterinsurgency mission until April 2004."

Iraq needs to be kept in context. It is not another Vietnam, neither on the ground nor in its domestic political dimensions. The only people who think this is a Vietnam replay are the people who don't know or have forgotten Vietnam. The US lost 58,000 dead in Vietnam and the war convulsed US society. There is no comparable sense with the Iraq crisis, despite its gravity.

Bush has ensured that the pain is not shared and that sacrifice is not widespread: it is business as usual with a booming economy, lots of spending, tax cuts and no conscription. War fatalities have just passed 2000. The American people know, of course, that Bush's Iraq calculations have come undone. Their dread is an American quagmire and defeat.

Vietnam, unlike Iraq, was not a war of choice. It was a war that president Lyndon Johnson escalated in 1965 to stop South Vietnam going communist. You can agree or disagree, but there is no doubt that Johnson had a compelling reason. LBJ's personal agony about Vietnam was utterly divorced from Bush's pervasive sense of faith and self-righteousness about Iraq.

I spoke to Bush last week in Washington after his speech to the Council on Foreign Relations. He was fit, folksy and joking, asking about John Howard and discussing my interview with him two years ago. "How'd I go?" he grinned. There is a sense that Bush operates within his own reality construct.

Campbell says: "I am 100 per cent certain the President has trouble coming to grips with bad news. Bad news is often kept from him."

Yet unreality is not confined to Bush. The American trauma has infected the left and sections of the Democratic Party. The idea of immediate withdrawal, embraced by the Bush haters, epitomises reality denial. The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol, a strong Bush backer, quotes George Orwell that "the quickest way of ending a war is to lose it".

For many of Bush's opponents the solution to the war lies in accepting defeat. Bush looks best when rebutting such critics: they would betray the Iraqis trying to rebuild their nation along with the US troops and their war dead. The Economist has editoralised: "The cost to America of staying in Iraq may be high, but the cost of retreat would be higher. By fleeing, America would not buy itself peace. Driving America out of Iraq would grant militant Islam a huge victory."

Prominent Democrat senator Joe Lieberman wrote in The Wall Street Journal after his fourth visit to Iraq: "It is a war between 27 million Iraqis and roughly 10,000 terrorists."

Much of the US media misreads Bush's options. His worst option is not that of staying in Iraq and taking more casualties; his worst option is a premature withdrawal that triggers a collapse and is seen as an act of betrayal.

There is nothing black or white about Iraq. The absolutism of pro-war neo-cons and anti-war moralists has been reinforcing and misleading. Iraq is marked by contradiction, the US is both a liberator and an occupying force. It is part of the solution and part of the problem. So Bush's new policy is based upon two conflicting imperatives: a recognition that the US must withdraw and decouple Iraq from America, yet a recognition that the US must stay long enough to ensure the insurgency doesn't win and to help those Iraqis ready to risk their lives to create a democratic polity. The game plan over 2006 is a US force reduction from 160,000 to about 100,000.

The Democratic foreign policy elite is confused. Bill Clinton opposes any fixed timetable but wants the US to listen to the new Iraqi government. Richard Holbrooke, former UN ambassador, opposes any quick withdrawal or deadline. Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser, wants all troops out by the end of 2006, with Kuwait as a base. The Democrats are trying to oppose Bush on Iraq yet uphold their national security credentials.

Iraq is a template for one of the greatest lost opportunities in US annals. Francis Fukuyama captures its essence, saying that after September 11 "the country would have allowed itself to be led in any of several directions and was prepared to accept substantial risks" but what it wanted "was that the leadership be effective, as indeed it was through the Afghan war and the fall of the Taliban."

Yet the Iraq venture ruined one of the finest policy and political positions ever bequeathed to a US president. Bush had three epic aims: to transform the Middle East, to redefine US foreign policy and to tighten his domestic power. A supporter of the war, prominent US military analyst Eliot Cohen from Johns Hopkins University says that Bush's war decision was "courageous" but laments "the incompetence of the planning for its aftermath, the absence of co-ordinated government policy, the mistakes in choosing the proconsuls to administer the prostate enemy, the unwillingness to admit the severity of the opposition, the failure to provide a large enough or well-enough equipped military to handle the fight over the long haul."

Cohen recalls the Bush administration's initial boast that "the adults are back."

Rumsfeld's survival is explicable only in terms of Bush's incomprehension. As late as May 2003 the Pentagon was planning to have troop numbers below 30,000 within months. Packer's book quotes Rumsfeld's spokesman Larry Di Rita saying in April 2003 that "we don't owe the people of Iraq anything, we're giving them their freedom. That's enough." When the looting began in Baghdad, Rumsfeld famously said "stuff happens". Carrying the banner of democracy, he unleashed a new anarchy. Under Rumsfeld the Iraqi army was abolished and the functioning state, in effect, disappeared.

Bush's future and US hopes in Iraq now depend upon the re-creation of the Iraqi state, a process that took a decisive step this week with the election of a four-year government under the new constitution. The final irony is that the structure and progress of this Iraqi government will largely decide Bush's fate.

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