So General Patraeus has made his long awaited report to Congress.
As John Bolton rightly said on BBC radio today (there's a phrase I never thought I'd type), the general appeared before Congress in a smart military uniform with four stars on his shoulders and lots of bright shiny medals on his chest. Apparently, this gives his words a credibility and authority with the American public which critics of the Iraq war can never hope to challenge.
Judging by these poll numbers (pdf), Bolton may have a point. Asked "who would you say you trust the most with successfully resolving the war in Iraq -- the Bush Administration, Congress, or U.S. military commanders in Iraq?", 68% opted for the men in uniform compared to 21% for Congress and only 5% for the Bush administration. Well, who hasn't got a thing for uniforms?
The Bush administration have sought to exploit this sentiment for all its worth by continually claiming that they base their Iraq strategies on the recommendations of the men in uniform. Their critics, on the other hand, clearly hate the brave defenders of freedom and their lovely outfits and are desperate for them all to be shot in the head or at least fail miserably...
This isn't the truth of course, Rumsfeld in particular refused to listen to anyone who disagreed with him, nice uniform or not, and seemed to make up strategies as he went along based on pies in the sky delivered by half-baked neo-conservative think tanks, but you can certainly see why they keep on hammering away with the line. The troops are providing cover for more than just their fellow soldiers (not an exclusively American phenomenon by any means).
The irony is that Patraeus does understand how difficult the situation is, unlike
"sweets and flowers" Wolfowitz, "last throes" Cheney or any of the previous body count military men who failed so miserably. Patraeus genuinely does seem to understand that traditional military methods will not work, that winning the support of the local population is crucial and he even understands some of what that entails. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that if Patraeus had been listened too from the start, and I mean from at least a year before the invasion, there's a chance that the last four and a half years could have been very different.
Now, I'm afraid, it's too late. The surge is, by definition, a temporary measure and the insurgents and militias know that just as well as everyone else. In the period of lawlessness which has existed in Iraq since the invasion, they've had a taste of the power they could wield and although they may be lying relatively low at the moment, they have not gone away. Unless the US intends to keep 150,000+ troops in Iraq permanently, and that is clearly ridiculous, the debate on whether a timetable would encourage "the enemy" is entirely spurious. Even in the best case scenario, it will take years before the Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi "unity" government, both heavily beset by sectarian tensions, will be capable of controlling Iraq. Timetable or not, most of the US soldiers will have to leave Iraq long before then. That's just a fact, one which the Bush administration seems determined not to acknowledge.
As to the general's assessment of the success of the surge, it is questionable to put in mildly. That's not to question his integrity exactly. The fact is that he's a general at war and if he was really telling the unadulterated truth, it'd be a first for any general in any war ever. His job is not to tell the whole truth but to present the situation in a way which best suits the military and political imperatives. His assessment is nothing like as outlandish as comical Ali's claims of victory as US troops rolled into Baghdad but its certainly not the unvarnished truth. And, for all that Patraeus claimed not to be acting as a mouthpiece for the Whitehouse, that's part of his job too. At the end of the day, his orders come from President Bush.
Still, he was wearing a very impressive uniform.
And then there's the timing. General Patraeus reported to Congress on September 10th. On September 12th, the Whitehouse will release its report on the way forward and on the 13th, Bush will go on TV to address the American people. In between times, there's the small matter of an anniversary to be commemorated. For those who accept that the invasion of Iraq was merely enabled by those horrible terrorist attacks rather than having any real connection to it, that's a disgusting exploitation of a tragic event. But with "nudge, nudge, wink, wink" timing like this, it's unsurprising that not everyone feels the same way. Earlier this month, US pollsters asked "do you think Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks...?" 33% of Americans answered yes (from the polls linked above).
Given all of that, and the Democrats inability to come up with anything even faintly resembling an alternative plan, Bush will probably get what he wants yet again and may well manage to hold out until the end of his term. That way, he can blame his successor for the catastrophic failure of his Iraq policies. Because nothing is ever the fault of Bush and his acolytes.
In the meantime, the imaginary game of Iraqi political football will continue. It is rumoured that the score is 655,000 - 0* but that is strongly disputed by those who claim not to have been keeping score themselves.
* That's Iraqi civilians deaths as a result of the US invasion compared to US civilian deaths as a result of Iraqi military activity against the United States.