A few days after Christmas I received a call from a former member of my unit in the military. He had mustered out a few months before me, but had returned to Iraq as a "security consultant" for a company working on rebuilding the Iraqi infrastructure. He was calling from Bahrain, where he was spending a few days of downtime escorting some corporate executives around.
It was a mostly innocous call, he had heard that I had gotten out and was simply catching up with me. During our conversation he said something in passing that stuck with me long after I hung up. He said that the corporate officers he was baby-sitting were very worried what President Bush would reveal in his "new" Iraqi policy when he finally took it public. When I asked him what he thought would happen his answer surprised me.
"Doesn't much matter. He's taken so long to make his decision that the situation on the ground has likely changed anyway. And besides...why do you think he's waiting this long to make the announcement? He's distancing himself from the ISG. Trust me, if an IED doesn't punch my ticket - I'll be here for years."
His words stuck with me as the holidays passed, and every time I turned on the TV or picked up a newspaper there was a story detailing the President's laborous work at fashioning a new policy in Iraq. I caught myself staring at a calendar on my desk at work last while kicking my friends comments around with a co-worker. The President had been working on a new policy for weeks, possibly months, and no one had asked him why it was taking so long.
On November 7th of last year, voters in the U.S. sent a clear message to the politicians in Washington that they were entirely disatisfied with the direction of the war in Iraq. The following day President Bush accepted the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld, one of the primary architects of the Iraq war, and signaled that he was going to examine new options in Iraq as the current "stay the course" policy had turned out to be wholly ineffective. One of the primary indications that he was open to a policy change was his nomination of Robert Gates to replace Don Rumsfeld. Mr. Gates was a former director of the CIA under the previous President Bush, and had considerable experience with intelligence and foreign affairs.
It was widely reported at the time that the President would delay any policy changes until after the bi-partisan Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by James Baker another member of his father's cabinet, released their recommendations. Political pundits from both sides of the aisle agreed that the President would likely use the ISG as political "cover" in order to change his "stay the course" policy in Iraq. Though President Bush clung to his "victory is the only option" theme on Iraq during the month that followed, he had dialed down the rhetoric considerably.
On December 6th the Iraq Study Group made its recommendations public, though it had revealed them privately to the White House and Congress several days previously. The 79 points in the group's final report were quite critical of the Administration's Iraq policies, repudiating many of the claims made by the White House in the days leading up to the mid-term elections. Political pundits were quick to point out that the report quite nearly disagreed with every aspect of the U.S. policy in Iraq. The White House reception of the group's report was understandably cool, and administration officials speaking off the record indicated that the President was not happy with many of the group's recommendations - especially those regarding Syria and Iran.
The White House stated that the President needed time to examine the ISG's report in detail before formulating it's new strategy. They also pointed to the incoming Secretary of Defense, and indicated that they would wait for his opinion as well. Eventually it was announced that the President would reveal his new Iraq policy after the new year, to give him sufficient time to put together his plan. Mr. Gates was sworn in on December 18th and left for Iraq a few days later to visit with the troops in the field. Again the press was full of reports about how hard the President was working at deciding on a new Iraq policy - reports indicated that he was speaking to many former generals and other experts to ascertain their opinions.
The realization that I came to as I thought about all of this was that two months had passed since the mid-term elections made it clear to the President the public's feelings towards the Iraq war. This last weekend made it a full month since the ISG made it's report public, and over a month since it related its contents to the administration. In the two months since the election more than 180 members of the armed services have lost their lives in Iraq, and more than five times that number have been wounded - many critically. Since the ISG reported its finding to the White House in early December 117 soldiers and marines have died in Iraq, and another 500 have been wounded. Over the same period more than a thousand Iraqis have died, and many countless more have fled or disappeared.
As an officer in the Army in charge of a small specialized unit, it was my responsibility to respond and react quickly to changing events on the ground. Our mission were generally very specific - but the means with which we accomplished our missions were often shaped by the ever-evolving environment we served in. In any military hieracrchy for every additional level one moves up in the chain the ability to react quickly and efficiently is further diluted. This is due to communication difficulties as well as a increasing lack of knowledge regarding events in the field. For the soldiers on the ground it was about eliminating "insurgent A" or apprehending "suspect B". Though political and regional concerns did play some part in the missions and decision making, it affected those above me in the chain to a far greater extent. Colonels and Generals have political responsibilities that I never had to deal with, but at the same time they were far removed from the reality of life on the streets of Baghdad and villages in Anbar.
The President faces a different reality at the top of the chain. While he is the furthest removed from the reality of the streets and is the most involved in the politics of any decision, he also has the absolute best global/strategic picture and top-flight advice from the highest ranking members of our military. The Pentagon brass receives real-time data from Iraq that is as up to date as the generals in the Green Zone in Baghdad. That information is readily available for the President and his staff, and he often receives direct briefings from his commanders in the field.
All of this information failed to answer my singular question: Why are we still waiting for his new policy in Iraq?
The administration has been making a show in the press of trotting out retired generals for Bush to talk to, listing the people he has been consulting with, and detailing how "hard" he is working on determining the direction in Iraq. Meanwhile - for the last two months - American soldiers have continued to die while "staying the course". Why is the change in policy taking so long? What could possibly be more important on the President's domestic or international agenda than this? Why has this decision taken 30 - 60 days?
He had to wait for the Iraq Study Group to finish? I only partially buy that argument as many media outlets were "leaking" some of the group's recommendation weeks before they actually went public. While the White House may not have known the full list of the group's recommendations it certainly knew the gist of where they were heading. And claims that the President had to take time to digest the report are equally bogus. It was barely a hundred pages long. I finished it the same day I got it and the President had his copy days before I got mine.
The same goes for the claim that Bush had to wait for Secretary Gates to get back from Iraq to give his opinion. Gates was already receiving Pentagon briefings before he was confirmed and I am sure that the President and he had several conversations regarding Iraq, likely they even had conversations abot Iraq during his interview process. The entire spectacle of Gates going to Iraq in the first place was a total PR stunt - as there was absolutely no critical information to be gained while on the ground in-country that he could not have gleaned from a phone call from his desk at the Pentagon. If anything VIP visits to a combat zone only interfere with the troops serving there. During my time in Iraq it was rare that a VIP of any rank was allowed outside the heavily fortified Green Zone, and certainly not since the insurgency gained momentum last February.
During the last few days news has begun to come out indicating that the President will unveil his new Iraq policy this week, possibly during an address to the nation on Wednesday. News has also begun to leak detailing the President's policy calling for a "surge" in troop strength in Iraq ranging from 9,000 to 30,000 soldiers depending on the source. A surge in troop strength that could last up to two years. If the news is to be believed the President's announcement will come more than two months after the mid-term elections and more than thirty days after the Iraq Study Group released its report. During that time more than 180 American service members have died and many hundreds more have been wounded.
President Bush: Why has your decision taken so long?