Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Post-Petraeus Rhetoric Battle

The rhetorical battle pitting General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker against the two houses of the Congress has now shifted to the radio airwaves with the President's weekly address and Democratic rebuttal. As Associated Press Writer Deb Riechmann reported, there were no surprises in what President Bush had to say:

President Bush, defending his decision to halt withdrawals of U.S. troops after July, said Saturday that Iraqis are shouldering more responsibility for securing their future.

The United States will stay on the offense, support the Iraqi security forces and move toward an oversight role, Bush said in his latest effort to garner support for the unpopular war. He used his Saturday radio address to promote his war policy, even though his approval rating hit a new low of 28 percent in an AP-Ipsos survey this week.

The president on Thursday said he would heed the advice of his top commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus. After the current drawdown of U.S. troops ends in July, Petraeus wants 45 days to evaluate security — followed by an indefinite period to reassess U.S. troop strength in Iraq, where flare-ups of extremist violence are threatening to undercut security gains.

"I've told him he'll have time he needs to make his assessment," Bush said.

That stance guarantees a heavy American military presence in Iraq for the rest of Bush's presidency as the war grinds through its sixth year. The current total of 160,000 troops is scheduled to shrink to about 140,000 by the end of July. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday that he no longer thinks, as he did last fall, that it was possible for troop levels to drop to 100,000 by year's end.

More interesting was the Democratic response, which was reported by Associated Press Writer Will Lester:

The growing cost to the United States of fighting the war in Iraq "is not only linked to our economic skid, but is a leading cause of it," a Democratic congressman said Saturday.

Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky linked the costly, unpopular war with the growing economic troubles — some say recession — in this country.

Yarmuth said in the Democrats' weekly radio address that the testimony this week of Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker about the Iraq war served as reminder of the billions of dollars being poured into Iraq as the U.S. economy struggles.

"General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker failed to offer a plan to change direction in Iraq and redeploy our troops," Yarmuth said. "Instead, they offered more of the same, with U.S. troops and taxpayers paying the price."

The U.S. government has spent "more than half-a-trillion dollars" in support of the war effort, while that money could be spent on pressing needs in this country, he said.

In February, an Associated Press-Ipsos poll found that pulling out of Iraq was the most named remedy for fixing U.S. economic problems.

Forty-eight percent of those surveyed said a withdrawal would help the country's economic problems "a great deal" and 20 percent more said it would help somewhat. Some 43 percent said increasing government spending on health care, education and housing programs would help a great deal; 36 percent named cutting taxes.

"Across America, our roads and bridges are crumbling and are in desperate need of repair, yet taxpayer dollars are being squandered on an Iraqi government that is riddled with waste, fraud and corruption," Yarmuth said.

He said "the cost of one month in Iraq could extend the Children's Health Insurance Program, which the president vetoed, to 10 million children of working families for a full year."

He noted that Congress has passed an economic stimulus package to send millions of Americans up to $1,200 that could provide a boost to the economy.

I, for one, was very glad to hear this perspective, just as I have been pleased by the number of radio interviews I have heard recently that cite the recent book by Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Blimes, The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict, which may well have provided source material for Yarmuth's rebuttal address. Stiglitz and Blimes have done this country a great service by converting that old "a billion here, a billion there" remark into real numbers (that are also really depressing).

My wife likes to remind me that, while William Shakespeare's Henry V is basically a celebration of a great military victory, the real King Henry pretty much bankrupted his country's treasury to achieve that victory. One could imagine some latter-day propagandist celebrating our current administration with a similar effort at mass entertainment. One could even imagine the result being so successful as to block the Stiglitz-Blimes book from our "cultural memory." Nevertheless, this is not a time to be quibbling over the judgments of history. Congressman Yarmuth did well to remind us of the full extent of the mess in which we are bemired, but that only emphasizes how little serious thinking has been applied to getting out of that mess.

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