Has Bush’s ability to undertake anything like coherent governance of the US started to implode? In a column in today’s WaPo, Bob Novak writes that several weeks ago, Sen. Chuck Hagel had sent a private letter to Bush advocating the appointment of an international mediator for Iraq under UN Security Council auspices.
Then, according to Novak,
- Instead of the president responding to [that] overture from a longtime critic, Hagel was answered in routine fashion by a third-level bureaucrat (Jeffrey Bergner, assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs).
Last week, Hagel therefore spelled out the content of his proposal in public, in this opinion piece in the Financial Times.
So one intriguing question is, who on earth in the President’s entourage made the stupid decision to blow Sen. Hagel off with such disrespect? Bush’s behavior there looks eerily like the rank arrogance displayed by Ehud Barak during his brief stint in the PM’s office in Israel, 1999-2000, when he assumed he was “so smart” he didn’t need to take any real account of the Labor Party’s partners in the ruling coalition– or indeed, of most of the other leaders of the Labor Party itself, most of whom had considerably more experience in governing than he did.
As a result, Barak’s coalition quickly collapsed paving the way for Sharon’s arrival into power and the continuing collapse of Labor as a coherent political entity.
Okay, I understand that the US’s governing system is very different from Israel’s (much more responsive) parliamentary system. But still, who in the White House is so arrogant that he would simply blow off Sen., Hagel? Only one, vice-presidential name comes to mind…
Anyway, clearly some people in the President’s entourage are finally getting the message that they need to be more politically agile and less stubborn on Iraq. David Sanger reports in today’s NYT that:
- White House officials fear that the last pillars of political support among Senate Republicans for President Bush’s Iraq strategy are collapsing around them, according to several administration officials and outsiders they are consulting. They say that inside the administration, debate is intensifying over whether Mr. Bush should try to prevent more defections by announcing his intention to begin a gradual withdrawal of American troops from the high-casualty neighborhoods of Baghdad and other cities.
Mr. Bush and his aides once thought they could wait to begin those discussions until after Sept. 15… But suddenly, some of Mr. Bush’s aides acknowledge, it appears that forces are combining against him just as the Senate prepares this week to begin what promises to be a contentious debate on the war’s future and financing.
Four more Republican senators have recently declared that they can no longer support Mr. Bush’s strategy, including senior lawmakers who until now had expressed their doubts only privately. As a result, some aides are now telling Mr. Bush that if he wants to forestall more defections, it would be wiser to announce plans for a far more narrowly defined mission for American troops that would allow for a staged pullback, a strategy that he rejected in December as a prescription for defeat when it was proposed by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group.
“When you count up the votes that we’ve lost and the votes we’re likely to lose over the next few weeks, it looks pretty grim,” said one senior official, who, like others involved in the discussions, would not speak on the record about internal White House deliberations.
Both Sanger and the WaPo’s Shankar Vedantam reports that Secdef Robert Gates has cancelled a planned visit to Latin America this week so that he can work on the “interim report” on the surge that the administration needs to present to Congress before July 15.
I am really glad that Gates has decided to hang around in Washington this week in person. If he weren’t physically there, then Cheney could much more easily dominate and distort the discussion.
Here, by the way, are more details of what Hagel wrote in the FT last week, and a short commentary from on that text:
About the international mediator, he wrote:
- An international mediator, under the auspices of the UN Security Council and with the full support of the Iraqi government, should be established. The mediator should have the authority of the international community to engage Iraq’s political, religious, ethnic and tribal leaders in an inclusive political process. In letters last month to President George W. Bush and the UN secretary-general I urged them urgently to consider this initiative.
Special envoys have been instrumental in helping bring political reconciliation to other recent conflicts – Afghanistan, Kosovo, East Timor, Northern Ireland – adapted to the conditions in each country. Iraq needs the international community’s help and support if it is to turn away fromsectarian violence. If there is Iraqi resistance, we should be clear with all Iraq’s leaders that this initiative is a condition of continued US support.
This approach would help begin to take the American face off Iraq’s political process. The US is seen as the occupier. Our ability to influence the outcome in Iraq has been seriously eroded.
This approach would further invest the region and the rest of the world in helping to stabilise Iraq. Reversing Iraq’s slide into chaos is a goal shared by nations around the world. Creating an international mediator would build on this common interest.
To succeed, this initiative must be complemented by other elements of a new regional US strategy. Stability in Iraq requires a sustainable and constructive comprehensive regional security framework, one that includes engaging Syria and Iran. We cannot allow last month’s regional ministerial conference on Iraq in Sharm el-Sheikh to be a “one-off” event. The US must also announce a renewed commitment to address the Arab-Israeli conflict, with a Middle East special envoy who has the authority effectively to work the day-to-day political reconciliation effort. The appointment of Tony Blair is welcome. He has the stature, standing and experience that will be required. To succeed, he must also have the mandate and authority to address all issues, including the political issues that must be resolved to achieve the two-state solution.
Ultimately, the future of Iraq will depend on choices made by the Iraqi people. America’s role will also remain critically important. But finding a responsible way forward in Iraq will require broader support. Creating an international mediator could help. For stability in Iraq, the world community must be engaged in support of a new political and diplomatic strategy.
I should note that Hagel also argued that,
- We are dangerously close to the moment when the American people will demand that we leave Iraq and pull back from the Middle East, risking a wider regional conflagration. This is not in the US’s interest or the world’s.
I agree with the first judgment expressed there– about the rising pro-withdrawal sentiment inside the US. I agree, too, that this “risks” a wider regional conflagration, though I assess the probability of this occurring at somewhat less than most US commentators. My informed analysis is that the countries of the region (except perhaps Israel) do already have enough good means of communication, and enough understanding both of the real balances of power and of each other’s intentions and interests, that they have a considerable– though of course not foolproof– ability to contain and de-escalate any tensions arising out of a US withdrawal from Iraq, and perhaps also from the whole Middle East.
The argument that the US “needs” to stay in the region to prevent a regional conflagration is just about as ill-founded and self-self-serving as the argument that the US “needs” to stay in Iraq to contain the internal tensions there– tensions that the US’s presence and policies have done a tremendous amount to stoke up over the past 4.5 years.
However, I do believe that it is strongly in the interests of the US citizenry– including the 170,000 service-members now put into imminent harm’s way by the architects of the ‘surge’, and all their families back home– that the US withdrawal from Iraq be orderly, and not catastrophic. Therefore, the US needs to negotiate its way out… A fact that I think Hagel also clearly understands.
Anyway, here is the important bottom line that Hagel expressed in his FT piece:
- In September, our military and diplomatic leaders in Iraq will provide Congress with a report on the situation. We cannot afford simply to wait until September to consider what must be done.
By the way, Novak also wrote that, after publishing that piece on July 3, “Hagel feared the worst when he returned home to conservative Nebraska for Fourth of July parades. Instead, he was pleasantly surprised by cheers and calls for the troops to be brought home.” (I’d noted the ovation but not Hagel’s antecedent fears about how his views would be received, here.)