What’s Plan B ?

June 17, 2007

What’s Plan B ?

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Every Sunday CUIP’s political director Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogue on Sunday, June 17, 2007 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show” and “Meet the Press.”

Salit: Washington is starting to prepare for the return from Iraq of General Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker (who was on “Meet the Press”) in September. They will present to the Congress on the progress being made in the war and on the “metrics” of how the situation is, or isn’t improving. Howard Fineman, on “The Chris Matthews Show,” gave his characterization of Bush’s bottom line. What’s driving Bush is that he believes sending American troops to Iraq moves the terrorists’ target from American soil to the Middle East. No terrorist attacks here, let’s do the fighting there. Fineman says that every day that goes by that there isn’t a terrorist attack in the United States, Bush feels vindicated. That’s why he believes in the policy. Public opinion has fallen away from backing the war, his popularity rating has dropped to below the 30% mark, the political implications of all of this have roiled Congress in the run-up to the ’08 elections, but from Bush’s point of view, none of this makes a difference. He is doing what he wanted to do there.

Newman: Fineman characterizes Bush’s understanding about the relationship between waging war in Iraq and protecting the homeland. It seems to me, if you look at the position carefully, it could be interpreted as meaning that the worse we do in Iraq, the better off Bush feels about the situation domestically.

Salit: How does that work?

Newman: That’s what keeps the terrorists there. They don’t stay there if they’re losing. They stay there if they’re winning. Now, you might say that such an approach might be diabolical, and that one couldn’t attribute those motives to the president. I’m not interpreting any motives. I just don’t think that this war – and this might sound like a conservative position – I don’t think the war is being fought to win. It’s being fought to hold things back and to keep the enemy pre-occupied. In that kind of war, you’re going to lose. But, Bush might say that’s good, that’s how we’ve kept the terrorists away from the United States.

Salit: From a military strategy point of view, Bush seems to be trying to get to a tipping point. Things get more secure in Baghdad, more secure in Anbar province. Can you make incremental gains on the ground and get to a tipping point where the situation is more viable for withdrawal? I’m not saying viable for a continued strong American presence there, but viable for a self-governed Iraq to “tie up” Al Qaeda and other insurgent forces.

Newman: I don’t know, in the current context, if there can be an objective reading of whether we are or aren’t at a tipping point. There is no objectivity, not just interpretively speaking. The whole set up of this “war on terror” is a fiasco. It’s based on a serious misconception. I’m not even saying there are entirely bad motives. It’s just stupidly thought through. The situation has no win-or-lose reality. And the Sunday morning talk show stuff is filler while they’re waiting for something to happen. But it’s not even clear what “something happening” means.

Salit: Are we basically looking for some incremental gains, tamping down the violence in Baghdad, for example, while waiting for something else to happen that brings some kind of resolution to the situation? And, if so, what is that? What is on the list of things that one could even speculate about?

Newman: This might sound terribly simplistic and naïve, and it probably is as I’m not an insider in any of this – but maybe what Washington is hoping for is that a Shia and a Sunni and a Kurd, with strong followings in their respective groupings, emerge in all of this as powerful leaders and sit down together at a meeting in Baghdad or somewhere else, and one of them says: Look, if we can somehow resolve our centuries-old tribal differences, we could get X trillion dollars from Washington, DC because they’re in a bind. And the other two nod. Possibly, that’s what Washington’s hoping for. Has that happened? Apparently, not yet. Is it going to happen? I don’t know. Maybe. Are there such leaders that could make that stick on the ground? Well, if the latest Palestinian story is a reliable guide, the answer is probably “No.” And I’m not an expert on this at all, but the antagonisms between Hamas and Fatah are not as historically deeply-rooted as this three-way split in Iraq. So, could a three-way coalition control their situation on the ground in Iraq? Highly questionable. But, that might be something close to Washington’s expectation. How long would that take? Will we have to keep troops there for a thousand years? That might be what’s required.

Salit: For that scenario to be successful.

Newman: Yes.

Salit: Okay. So, let’s say that is, roughly speaking, Plan A.

Newman: No, I’m suggesting this is Plan B, at best. Plan A is Bush just keeping the terrorists from doing something terrible in this country on his watch. That’s Plan A.

Salit: Okay, that’s Plan A.

Newman: But you were asking me, is there is any hope for a new development that changes the picture? I’m suggesting this as something that they might be looking for, at the political level.

Salit: Alright. But what if Plan B doesn’t surface in the foreseeable future…

Newman: You can’t say that because Plan B includes a clause which says that there is no foreseeable future. It goes on indefinitely.

Salit: So, how do you handle that? I guess that’s what the 2008 presidential race is about.

Newman: Yes, you have an election. And if the American people are ready to move in another direction, they will perhaps indicate that on Election Day. And we’ll see something resembling a policy change.

Salit: So, Bush is down to 29% approval rating. And now there’s the issue of how he relates to his core base and how his base relates to him – now that they’ve hit hard times. His base looked at his support for the immigration bill and pushed back against it “big time” and then he criticized them for not supporting it. Some people said: Look, it’s crazy for him to do this because essentially what he’s doing is criticizing the small number of supporters he’s got. What is he expecting to happen off of making statements like that? He’s not going to win over the Kennedy followers. All he’s going to do is demoralize his already dispirited base.

Newman: Insofar as I can put myself in Bush’s place, I think his attitude towards the people who are criticizing him for criticizing his base is that they are disingenuous. On the one hand, some of these same people have said he’s a liar, he’s duplicitous. On the other hand, they’re saying that he’s stupid for coming out against his political base. Well, why isn’t that construed as him being honest? The two things don’t go together.

Salit: So what do you think is Bush’s bottom line feeling about his core constituency?

Newman: I think at this point in his presidency Bush thinks that he has done enough for them and that his conservative base should be satisfied. If you look at the polls and read them the way he would want to read them – and I don’t totally disagree with him – they’re the ones who are being disloyal to Bush, not the other way around. He got them the Supreme Court. He got them a war. The business community is madly in love with him. The stock market goes up and up and up and up and up. And now he’s saying, for whatever reasons, we can’t cut off the Hispanic base from this party.

Salit: And the right wing, which is largely white, is saying “We’re not going to give you this one.”

Newman: Yes, and Bush is saying, well, that’s your disloyalty to me, not my disloyalty to you. And I think he has good reason to feel that way.

Salit: And what about the pardon business? His base wants him to pardon Libby as a sign of loyalty to them, too.

Newman: I’m sure they do. My idea of what he’d say to his base about this, if he were to be really candid, is: It’s none of your damn business. You’re not the president of the United States. I’m the president of the United States. I might be at only 29%, but I’m still the president and I’m still the commander-in-chief. So it’s none of your business.

Salit: Not a bad argument.

Newman: And, ultimately, what he’s saying to that relatively small far right base is: Where else are you going to go? You think you’re going to do better with the Democrats? Try it. He doesn’t have to worry about winning the presidency. He’s not running.

Salit: Somebody made reference to being president in your second term, when you’re not running again and, if your popularity figures are as low as his are, it can be a liberating experience, because you’re just not playing to anybody.

Newman: I wouldn’t characterize it that way. It’s just that he’s not running for the presidency again. So there are other dynamics that are now more dominant than that one. But I don’t know that I’d call that liberating.

Salit: Thanks, Fred.