President Bush’s sobering address to the nation laid out his plan to rescue Iraq by sending in more troops at a time when polls show the American people want just the opposite. Is his approach a significant change of course? Will it work? We leave that to others to chew over. What we can say is that he was right on the facts he cited, although there were some notable omissions. While he highlighted the planned distribution of oil revenues to the Iraqi people and a new commitment of reconstruction funds by the Iraqi government, he didn’t say a word about how the U.S. or Iraq would deal with rampant corruption that threatens to undermine both.
Similarly, we found the rebuttal by Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat, to be factually accurate but also somewhat selective.
Bush’s speech wasn’t long on facts, since he was focused mainly on what the U.S. and Iraq will do in the future. We’ll take his factual statements one-by-one and note some things that got left on the cutting-room floor.
Desire To Live In Peace?
Bush: Most of Iraq’s Sunni and Shia want to live together in peace.
A big orange warning flag should go up over the accuracy of any polls of a population caught in the middle of a war. That said, the available polling data supports this claim. Last June, the International Republican Institute asked over 2,000 Iraqis to agree or disagree with the suggestion that the nation be segregated according to religious or ethnic sect. Only 13 percent agreed or strongly agreed, while 66 percent strongly disagreed. In the same poll, 89 percent of respondents said that establishing a “unity” government was extremely important “to the future peace and stability of Iraq.
In addition, the summary of a 1,000-person poll in Sept. 2006 by the World Public Opinion organization concluded that “Majorities of all groups do not favor a movement toward a looser confederation and believe that five years from now Iraq will still be a single state. A large majority sees the current government as the legitimate representative of the Iraqi people.”
Sharing Oil Revenues
Bush: Iraq will pass legislation to share oil revenues among all Iraqis.
That sounds good, but Bush fails to note that crude oil production hasn’t yet recovered to pre-war levels. Before the U.S.-led invasion, it stood at 2.5 million barrels/day. By December 2006, it was 2.15 million – down a bit from the months of June-Oct. of last year. With the price-per-barrel being high, there still could be a lot of money to pass around – except for corruption that is siphoning off a good deal of the money and which we didn’t hear about in the President’s speech.
Bush: To show that it is committed to delivering a better life, the Iraqi government will spend $10 billion of its own money on reconstruction and infrastructure projects that will create new jobs.
The missing word here is “corruption,” perhaps the most glaring omission in the President’s address. If the $10 billion in reconstruction money is to be effective, the Iraqi government will have to do something about the rampant corruption noted by the Iraq Study Group, the Government Accountability Office and numerous news accounts. Bush didn’t use the word “corruption” once in his speech, nor was it mentioned by either of the “senior administration officials” who briefed White House reporters just prior to the speech on the condition that their names not be used. By contrast, “corruption” is mentioned 15 times in the ISG report, which lists it as one of the major reasons for the Iraqi government’s inability to provide basic services like water and electricity on any sort of reliable basis. Other examples:
ISG Report: [C]orruption is rampant. One senior Iraqi official estimated that official corruption costs Iraq $5–7 billion per year.
ISG Report: Economic development is hobbled by insecurity, corruption, lack of investment, dilapidated infrastructure and uncertainty.
ISG Report: One senior U.S. official told us that corruption is more responsible than insurgents for breakdowns in the oil sector.
In July 2006, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) reported a poll that found a third of Iraqis said they had paid bribes for goods or services that year. In a September 2006 news report by the United Nations’ Integrated Regional Information Networks, Judge Radhi al-Radhi, head of the Commission for Public Integrity (CPI) in Iraq, estimated that $4 billion “has been pilfered from state coffers and no one is taking responsibility.”
Transparency International, a non-partisan international watchdog group, has listed Iraq as the second most corrupt government in the world, with only Haiti edging it out of first place. The GAO reported that the lack of an effective banking system in Iraq , ambiguous procurement systems, and inadequate anti-corruption training have hampered attempts to reduce foul play. The GAO also reported that between January 2005 and August 2006, 56 Iraqi officials were found guilty of corruption or had arrest warrants issued against them, but apparently the arrests and prosecutions aren’t having much of a deterrent effect.
Bush: [T]o allow more Iraqis to re-enter their nation’s political life, the government will reform de-Baathification laws.
This measure, which is indeed on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s to-do list, was also recommended by the ISG as a key element of national reconciliation. Many professionals who worked in the government in the days of Saddam Hussein were purged because of their Baath Party ties in the weeks and months after Hussein was ousted. But 40 percent of Iraq’s professional class has left the country altogether, and Bush doesn’t address the problem of luring them back.
Bush: Al Qaeda has helped make Anbar the most violent area of Iraq outside the capital. A captured al Qaeda document describes the terrorists’ plan to infiltrate and seize control of the province.
It is fair to say that al Qaeda is still active in Iraq, even though its leader in the country, Abu Masab al Zarqawi, was killed by U.S. forces in June 2006. The group is believed to include mostly foreign fighters, and it’s widely acknowledged that they’re most active in Anbar. The Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index estimates that there were between 800 and 2,000 foreign fighters in all of Iraq as of November.
The Washington Post reported in November that a secret Marine memo described al Qaeda in Iraq as the “dominate organization of influence in al-Anbar.” But the official who leaked the memo to the paper said “it overstates the role of al Qaeda in the province.” A Congressional Research Service report characterizes this group as “numerically small, but politically significant.”
Al Qaeda, Pt. II
Bush: America’s men and women in uniform took away al Qaeda’s safe haven in Afghanistan, and we will not allow them to re-establish it in Iraq.
Operation Enduring Freedom, the U.S. military response to the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, pretty much ousted the Taliban and al Qaeda from Afghanistan. But Bush didn’t mention that the Taliban have been creeping back, possibly as a consequence of the deployment of so many troops to Iraq, and some key members of al Qaeda – including, according to many reports, Osama bin Laden – have found safe haven just over the border in Pakistan.
Bush: Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops.
There’s not much disagreement on this front, except from the Iranians. It is widely accepted that Iran, either directly or indirectly, has been involved in aiding militia groups fighting U.S. forces. In August 2006 The Washington Post quoted Department of Defense spokesman Major General William B. Caldwell as saying, “We do believe that some Shiite elements have been in Iran, receiving training. But the degree to which this is known and endorsed by the government of Iran is uncertain.” However, by the following month, the U.S. military reported that explosive devices with signature labels found in Iraq were proof-positive of Iranian government involvement. And Brig. Gen. Michael Barbero of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has said in an interview that “Iran is definitely a destabilizing force in Iraq …I think it’s irrefutable that Iran is responsible for training, funding and equipping some of these Shiia extremist groups and also providing advanced technology to them, and there’s clear evidence of that.” A Congressional Research Service report from December 2006 also cites reports of Iranian involvement with Sunni insurgents fighting US forces.
The Democratic Rebuttal
In a Democratic rebuttal to the President’s speech, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois said a troop increase is not what the voters ordered up in the 2006 House and Senate elections. That’s true as far as it goes, but it’s truer of Democrats than Republicans.
Durbin: Escalation of this war is not the change the American people called for in the last election.
Exit-polling data from last year’s congressional elections support this statement. When asked about troop levels in Iraq, only 17 percent said “send more” and 21 percent favored no change. But 55 percent said they favored withdrawing some or all U.S. troops. Democrats were far more likely than Republicans to favor withdrawal, and the few who favored a troop increase were Republican by three to one.
After Durbin spoke, The Associated Press reported a new AP/Ipsos poll showing that 70 per cent of those surveyed oppose sending more troops. The poll was taken in the days just before Bush spoke, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent, according to AP. The partisan split continues: 87 percent of Democrats opposed a troop increase, but only 42 percent of Republicans.
Ignoring Advice of Generals?
Durbin: In ordering more troops to Iraq, the president is ignoring the strong advice of most of his own top generals. General John Abizaid — until recently, the commanding general in Iraq and Afghanistan — said, and I quote, “More American forces prevent the Iraqis from doing more, from taking more responsibility for their own future,” end of quote.
True, Abizaid said that at a Nov. 15, 2006 hearing, and also said that he believed Iraqi forces could defeat the insurgency. But later at the same hearing he also said, “If more troops need to come in, they need to come in to make the Iraqi army stronger.”
Bush says that’s just what he’s doing: using the added US troops to stiffen Iraqi forces. The two senior administration officials who briefed reporters Wednesday said some of the added US troops would be embedded with Iraqi forces, but that Iraqis would take the lead in combat operations.
A minor point, but Abizaid no longer is one of Bush’s “own top generals,” which Durbin himself noted in passing. Bush announced a few days ago he was replacing Abizaid as head of the Central Command, at the same time that he replaced Gen. George Casey as the top commander in Iraq. Casey had also expressed reservations about sending more troops, although at a news conference Thursday Marine Corps General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the request for additional troops actually came from Gen. Casey “and his commanders.”
Pace: General Casey and his commanders came forward and asked for additional forces.They asked for additional forces for Baghdad, and they asked for additional forces for al-Anbar.
Bush is glossing over some inconvenient facts, and so are his critics.
Correction Jan. 17: Our original article said that “It is widely accepted that Iran , either directly or indirectly, has been involved in aiding militia and insurgent groups fighting U.S. forces.” We’ve removed the reference in that sentence to insurgent groups. Although the December 2006 Congressional Research Service report that we cite in this article says that “a few reports say Iran might also be aiding Sunni insurgents who are fighting U.S. forces,” this isn’t a view that is widely accepted.
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