Monday, September 10, 2007

What Impressed Me This Week: Waiting for Petraeus

It seems almost silly to comment on a week that ends just as General Petraeus is giving his long-awaited testimony, doesn't it? But it's not like we can't guess what he's going to say. People spent the whole week guessing, and they mostly agreed with each other: Petraeus would say we'd made military progress since the Surge started, but that the political situation of the Iraqi government hadn't improved. He'd ask for more time.

Surge Statistics
The big debate all week has been whether the Surge has reduced violence in Baghdad or anywhere else. Josh Marshall over at TPM has been all over this issue. Basically the story is that the Pentagon's numbers differ from those compiled by AP, the GAO, the Iraqi government, or pretty much anybody. And how they get those numbers is classified. Josh sums it up:

In other words, it's not just a matter of getting the numbers from Petraeus and his staff and deciding whether you believe them or not. They won't even tell us what the numbers are -- let alone how they came up with them. All they'll say is that they're very good. Or in some cases that there's X percentage drop over the course of the surge. Or an isolated number here or there. But actual hard numbers? Going back over the last couple years? For some reason we're not allowed to see those.

The low point in the week was the article by Michael Gordon in Saturday's New York Times. For those who don't remember, Gordon is a former co-author of Judith Miller, the Times reporter who wrote all those false stories about Saddam's WMDs in the lead-up to the invasion. Well, Gordon is at it again, reporting the Pentagon's spin on the Surge as if it were the only word on the subject. Josh takes it apart here.

Several bloggers discussed the "moving goalposts" of the Surge. The best job was by Tim Grieve at Salon's War Room blog. He goes back to the statements President Bush made when he introduced the Surge, and traces the story from there:
for a lesson in setting goal posts when it's politically necessary and then moving them when the ball falls short, watch how the White House first embraced the idea of "benchmarks" as a test for the "surge" and then tore them down once it became clear that they wouldn't be met.
In a second excellent post, Grieve explains the maneuver by which the administration makes sure that it's never the right time to criticize them.
The pattern is now clear: Demand that everyone else withhold judgment on Iraq until some new assessment arrives, announce that you're doing whatever you want to do no matter what, declare the ensuing debate to be too late, and then start the whole process over again six or nine months down the road by demanding that everyone withhold judgment again.
What's Going On in Anbar?
Beyond the hype, I found a couple good on-the-ground articles about what's going on in Anbar province. Over at the Small Wars Journal there's an article by Dave Kilcullen, the Australian who is one of the top theorists about counter-insurgency. I disagree with his support of the Surge, but I thought his article was interesting anyway. He gets down into the dynamics of the relationship between Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Sunni tribes.

A second interesting article is The Myth of AQI by Andrew Tilghman at Washington Monthly. He looks at the question: How big a deal is Al Qaeda in Iraq? Are they as big as we're being told? Have they done all the things they've been given credit for? He examines the pressures inside our military to interpret any ambiguous incident as the work of AQI.

Looking Back at Gore's Press Coverge
Vanity Fair takes a look back at how the press covered Al Gore when he was running for president in 2000. They review how innocent statements turned into "I invented the Internet" and a bunch of other bogus stories that got woven together into a serious character flaw.

This is an important story, and not just because Gore might run for something again someday. (I don't think he will. I believe Al is happy with the life he has now, and he's not going to screw it all up by becoming a candidate again.) We need to understand how the distortion process works, so that we can spot it when it happens again in 2008. Because it will.

Don't Vote Until You See the Whites of Their Eyes
This week I took advantage of my God-given right as a New Hampshirite to see presidential candidates close up. I wrote about Fred Thompson in a separate post. And I got another look at John Edwards on Friday.
Bush Books
A bunch of new books about the administration have come out recently. I'm going to tell you about them over the next few weeks. This week I read Charlie Savage's Takeover: the Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy. Savage is the Boston Globe reporter who got a Pulitzer Prize for drawing attention to the signing statements President Bush has been attaching to bills the Congress passes, and to how those statements differ from those of previous presidents.

Nothing in Takeover seemed new to me, which actually speaks well for Savage. I hate it that Bob Woodward keeps writing in the Washington Post but saves the good stuff for his books. Savage apparently has been telling us what he knows all along.

What's valuable in Takeover is to see the whole story laid out end-to-end. In the presence of such an all-pervasive propaganda machine, subjects often come up surrounded by one apparent set of facts, which later turn out to be false. It's hard to keep track of what was true when. So, for example, when we first heard about Guantanamo, we were assured that the people being kept there were "the worst of the worst" and far too dangerous to put through any ordinary system of justice. Much later we found out that we had paid bounties to our Afghan allies for Taliban members, and that a lot of people they sold us were probably just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The story looks completely different when the facts are put in order from the beginning and you don't have unlearn a set of lies.

Savage's book does a good job of documenting the precise difference between this administration and previous ones. I've heard conservatives claim that Bush is doing nothing that other presidents didn't do, and that the buzz about it is all partisan politics. When you see the whole story in one book, that's a hard position to maintain. It's more accurate to say that the Bush administration combed history for the worst excesses of all previous administrations, and looked for ways to extend those precedents.

I also got a much better appreciation of the power of lawyers in the executive branch, especially the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department, which interprets the laws for the rest of the executive branch. If they're willing to say that up is down and black is white, and if they can keep the resulting issues out of the courts by invoking secrecy or through some other method, then anything can happen. If the OLC wrote a secret memo saying that the government can shoot you, and if the administration convinced the courts that producing any evidence about your shooting would violate the state secrets privilege, well then you could be shot and that would be the end of it. Do you understand now? That's how an innocent man like Maher Arar could be tortured and not even get an apology from the U.S. government.

Savage makes it clear that expanding executive power has been Cheney's agenda for 30 years. What he never says is why. And I don't know why either. Is it just power for power's sake? Or does an imperial presidency serve some worthy purpose in Cheney's mind? I have no idea.

Other Bush books in the queue: The Terror Presidency by Jack Goldsmith, who used to work for the Bush administration in the aforementioned OLC. And Dead Certain by Robert Draper, who I mentioned last week.

Online Humor
Every watch Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central? in his segment "The Word," a text box constantly runs counterpoint to what he's saying. It's a great gimmick, but why just apply it to Colbert's parody of Bill O'Reilly? Why not do it to Bill himself? That's the idea behind Stalking Points Memo over at the News Corpse web site. They take some clips of O'Reilly's "Talking Points" and run their own text box next to it, just like Colbert's.


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