Washington's War Trauma

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Stephen Crowley / New York Times / Redux

Senators Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) confer during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Gen. George Casey's nomination to be Army chief of staff, Feb. 1, 2007. Also pictured are Senators Carl Levin (D-Mich.), left, and John Warner (R-Va.).

Washington is in the middle of an almost cinematic nervous breakdown about the war on Iraq. And it's a reliable feature of life here in the city of fear that one crisis will spill into the other before long, as it promises to do this week.

Virtually everywhere you look here, there are worrisome pathologies on display. There's the Scooter Libby trial, which turns on whether White House officials took the nation to war winking along the way — and then punished anyone who had the nerve to call them on it. Then there's the steady scheduling of "briefings" and "backgrounders" by conservative think tanks here about the Iranian threat — a desperate attempt to change the subject from Iraq. This is a dodge that is working almost perfectly, especially in that it never concedes that Iran is a growing regional power now in part because the fiasco in Iraq deprived southwest Asia of its previous balance of power.

But there are two other panic attacks under way that should unfold in rapid fashion this week: first, if current trends hold, it may turn out that the Senate cannot even manage a much promised vote on whether the President's "surge" is a good idea. And thanks in part to that, the President's nominee to take over the embattled, overstretched and increasingly underequipped Army — a man who opposed the surge for most of the last year — now may have trouble being confirmed.

Debate was supposed to begin this morning on the numerous resolutions before the Senate expressing various levels of disapproval or support for the 21,500 man surge now under way in Iraq. It has seemed for a few days that the balance of power rests with a resolution by Democrat Carl Levin and Republican John Warner expressing the Senate's disapproval of the surge. But late last week, under intense White House pressure, Republicans let it be known that they may unite to keep that measure from coming to a vote. Even some of the Republicans who support the Levin/Warner language will vote to keep it bottled up. Washington is at its worst when it avoids the real issue and takes refuge in arguments about procedure, but that is usually where the party in power runs when its back is against the wall.

A casualty of this maneuvering will be Gen. George Casey, the president's nominee to be Army Chief of Staff. Casey doesn't look like a great chief in the making — he is no Edward "Shy" Meyer or Eric Shinseki — and his performance in his confirmation hearing last week was at times underwhelming. But Casey isn't in trouble with Democrats for his lack of finesse; he's in trouble for having too much. Some Democrats think he should have stood up months ago and proclaimed Iraq policy a disaster. They say he should have stepped out of the chain of command and said what no general in the service has said since Shinseki was bounced out a few years ago: that the civilians at the White House and the Pentagon were driving the truck off the road. But Casey, if he believed that, kept it to himself, and that's where Democrats say he stumbled. I'm not sure this criticism is realistic: Crashing the chain of command is not a trait where the Army has ever scored high in its promotion boards. And Casey, an Army brat whose dad died in a chopper crash in Vietnam, is a product of the service that created him; neither of his bosses, Gen. John Abizaid or outgoing chief Gen. John Schoonmaker, were exactly big truth-tellers when it came to talking to Congress.

Republicans, for their part, are mad at Casey because they have no one else to be mad at. Rumsfeld is gone, Abizaid and Schoonmaker are leaving; Cheney is lodged, limpet-like, in the West Wing, awaiting his turn in the Libby trial. But taking down Casey for the conduct of a war that a bunch of guys in ties ordered the Army to prosecute under now-infamous limitations is certainly as perverse as what the Democrats are up to here. And it fits with the growing neoconservative critique of the war at the moment: it was not the idea that was wrong — it was how the generals prosecuted it. Ironically, the fact that the Republicans have made Casey their preferred whipping boy for Bush's mistakes may be reason enough for some Democrats to want to vote for him.

And here is where the two panic attacks come together: if the Republicans block any consideration of the no-confidence-in-the-surge-resolutions this week, Casey will be finished. Democrats will vote against Casey because his nomination will become the de facto no confidence vote, the only way to express disapproval of the war.

And that is life in a city having a collective nervous breakdown.