December 6, 2006
Goodness Gracious! The Truth!
By MAUREEN DOWD
First Junior took over the house with grandiose plans to remodel it and make it the envy of the neighborhood. But then he played with matches and set the house on fire. So now he’s frantically trying to stop the flames from torching the whole block.
The Bush administration has gone from a breathless plan to change the Middle East to a breathless plan to preserve it, from democracy promotion to conflagration avoidance.
That was the cold shower offered yesterday by Robert Gates, the former C.I.A. chief, on his way to being unanimously endorsed as the new defense secretary by a Senate panel craving a cold shower.
He told the Armed Services Committee, peppered with wannabe future presidents, that the American occupation could lead to a Baghdad as hostile as Tehran, and set off “a regional conflagration” if Iraq is not deftly handled in the next couple of years.
Mr. Gates asserted that if America left Iraq in chaos, Iran and Syria could encroach more, and Turkey and Saudi Arabia might jump in to stop the ethnic cleansing of Sunnis by Shiites. “We’re already seeing Hezbollah involved in training fighters for Iraq,” he said. “I think all of that could spread fairly dramatically.”
It was the sort of realistic assessment that never came from Rummy, except when he privately admitted in a classified Nov. 6 memo that their Iraq strategy was “not working well enough or fast enough,” offering a silly hodgepodge of wildly tardy or dubious options, like telling the Iraqis to “pull up their socks.”
It was chilling to see in print that the man who spent nearly four years overseeing the war did not have any idea what to do in Iraq; his basic plan was not so much to fix the problem as to lower expectations. The memo, reported by Michael Gordon in The Times on Sunday, offered the following lame-brained prescriptions to manage perception:
“Announce that whatever new approach the U.S. decides on, the U.S. is doing so on a trial basis. This will give us the ability to readjust and move to another course, if necessary, and therefore not ‘lose.’ ” And this: “Recast the U.S. military mission and the U.S. goals (how we talk about them) — go minimalist.”
So with the Pentagon deciding whether to Go Big, Go Long or Go Home, Rummy urged the White House to Go Minimalist and simply streamline the spin.
Junior took the advice to manage perceptions by minimizing Rummy two days after he sent the memo. The walls had closed in on W.; he could no longer minimize the war, which was escalating, or the perception that it was not going well, which had spread into Republican ranks. Even Gen. Peter Pace, yes man that he is, acknowledged on Monday that “We’re not winning but we’re not losing.”
The old criticisms of whether Mr. Gates massaged intelligence were forgotten; the senators would have embraced an ax-murderer if he had seemed sensible about Iraq.
There was no blathering yesterday about “known unknowns” or “Henny Penny” pessimists. The soft-spoken, vanilla Mr. Gates offered a sharp contrast from the finger-wagging, flavorful Rummy. In a remarkable shift from the mindless bellicosity and jingoism of the last few years, Mr. Gates said he did not favor military action against Iran or Syria.
Even though he was a member of the Iraq Study Group, Mr. Gates conceded that there would be no silver bullet. “It’s my impression that, frankly, there are no new ideas on Iraq,” he said. Asked by Robert Byrd who was responsible for 9/11, Saddam or Osama, Mr. Gates did not try to fudge. “Osama bin Laden, Senator,” he replied. Asked who has represented a greater threat to the U.S., he repeated “Osama bin Laden.”
W. insisted to Fox News’s Brit Hume on Monday that his “objective hadn’t changed” and that “we’re going to succeed in Iraq.” Asked by Carl Levin if America was winning in Iraq, Mr. Gates answered, “No, sir.”
After lunch the nominee clarified his remarks, saying he had not meant to criticize the troops, that the reversals in Iraq were not their fault. They don’t lose battles in Iraq because there are no battles. There’s just a counterinsurgency that they can’t see and that they weren’t prepared or equipped to fight.
Gates’s friends from the old Bush 41 gang have been watching closely to see if 43 brought the old Washington hand back for “cosmetic reasons,” as one put it, simply to try to change the perception that W. has been stubborn and deaf on Iraq. Or whether 43 really will give his new defense chief the parameters he needs to make real changes in strategy. Will he let him Go Maximalist?