by ROBERT HEROLD & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & P & lt;/span & resident Bush, playing the role of huckster-in-chief, made a surprise visit to Iraq -- and, by doing so, managed to putrefy a serious situation under a wave of political expediency. His timing couldn't have been more transparent. He arrived just before his designated white knight, Gen. David Petraeus, was about to leave to brief Congress with what has been billed as an independent and objective analysis. Speaking from "the ground," i.e., the heavily guarded American compound, Bush performed what amounted to a rerun of his discredited "Mission Accomplished" routine. I'm surprised that his handlers didn't have him swagger out of a tank.

Bush is hoping to pressure Congress. We can only hope that the Democrats there won't be intimidated. The country needs to know the truth, but Bush can't be counted on to provide it. Even though all serious observers are in agreement that the Iraq government is not making political progress, even though his top military leadership warn of troop draw-downs if only because there aren't enough troops, and even as his "coalition of the willing" melts away, Bush continues to yammer on with talk of complete victory.

Speaking of his coalition meltdown, here's where things stand. The president has lost Great Britain, Canada, Korea, and even Poland. If Prime Minister John Howard goes down in Australia, Bush loses that country as well. His coalition will have been reduced to an Occupying Army of One. Swell. But, the President remains stubbornly optimistic. He told Howard that "we are kicking ass in Iraq."

Bluster aside, the fact is Bush has been reduced to doing a reverse Chicken Little routine: "The surge is working, the surge is working, the surge is working." But working how? A reduction in violence where troop levels are the highest? OK, but this is to be expected. And what does it prove? Only that troops with strong leadership can keep order. After ethnic cleansing has run its course, will the surge result in fewer murders?

In 1968, the murder of Martin Luther King brought riots to our nation's capital, and the D.C. police had been obviously overwhelmed. In response, President Lyndon Johnson sent in more than 14,000 troops. (All of them sent to bring peace to a single city which had, at the time, a population one-tenth that of Baghdad today. Now that's a surge!) To no one's surprise, the troops did put down the 20,000 rioters. More than 6,000 of them were arrested -- though not before more than a thousand buildings had been destroyed.

Most notably, after the violence ended, institutions -- legitimate "institutions" (public, civic, private) -- quickly moved in to repair damage (although it must be pointed out that 40 years later, we still see empty lots). America had that capability 40 years ago -- but except for Kurdistan, as Thomas Friedman points out, Iraq lacks the institutions necessary to do the same. If Friedman is right, wouldn't it follow that progress of the sort being claimed by Petraeus, more concerned with military advances, is more apparent than real? Which brings me to the much-publicized new Army/Marine counterinsurgency manual, written by a team directed by Gen. Petraeus along with Marine Lt. Gen. James Mattis. We are told by Bush that this manual provides Gen. Petraeus with the blueprint for success. OK, so given this reliance, committee members might want to ask the general to comment on the quote he took from a member of Mao's Central Committee who said that revolutionary war (and, by extension, counterinsurgency) is "80 percent political and 20 percent military." Assuming that Petraeus agrees with this observation, shouldn't Congress quickly move past the military analysis to consider what's happening on the political front? Put differently, what about the 80 percent?

We find, however, that no one close to the occupation thinks that the surge is working. Both the Congress' own blue ribbon advisory committee as well as Ambassador Ryan Crocker have commented on the lack of political progress. Which observations lead to questions regarding other troubling sections in the manual. For example, the manual states that counterinsurgency efforts are always long-term: a decade or longer. So assuming that Gen. Petraeus agrees with his own manual, he would then need to address differences he has with his own senior military colleagues, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who is saying that the troops can't remain much longer, simply because there aren't enough of them.

This acknowledgment would have the effect of putting the ball back in the President's court. Will Bush compromise Petraeus' strategy and not keep the troops there in numbers necessary to "kick ass?" Or will he ignore the general's manual which says that they are necessary? He could, just for once, play it straight with the American people -- and call for, say, a draft? But he won't risk that.

It is more likely that he will redouble his shrill demagoguery, all the while he connects imagined dots between 9/11 and his faith-based war. Most terrifying, some (including Pat Buchanan) believe that he will he deflect attention away from his Iraq failure by making the case for bombing Iran.

So all the dead political air space isn't found in Iraq. Here, at home, it lies between Bush's huckstering and his most recent performance of reverse Chicken Little.

So just how exactly does our divided Congress plan on filling this dead air space?

Before the 2008 election? I'm not optimistic.

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