Australian Deputy Prime Minister Mark Vaile politely asked George W. Bush on the tarmac in Sydney what he saw during his stopover in Iraq. “We’re kicking ass,” our chipper President replied. So, after four long years since his memorable words of “bring ’em on” and “mission accomplished,” the President continues on his own merry course.

Bush returns to direct the national “debate” on the progress of his “surge” strategy in Iraq, which features reports by Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. The President is already kicking some ass, but on his own political turf. The White House, we know, has been engaged in the preparation of the Petraeus and Crocker reports. Can there be any surprises? We have formal Congressional hearings, but they promise little in the way of real inquiry–or real opposition. After the testimony, the President will address the nation and, once again, put his imprimatur on “the course.” Bush is engaged: He has the microphone and the national stage.

As Bush expands Petraeus’s role and strategy, Congress will find it difficult to challenge, let alone oppose, the mountain of authority the President is erecting.

Congress’s Government Accountability Office has reported on the failure to achieve eleven of the eighteen legislative, security and economic benchmarks established in Congressional legislation, approved by the President and accepted by the Iraqi government. But the story has been overwhelmed by other news surrounding the impending review and seems destined to be ignored.

The authors of the GAO report interviewed Petraeus, Crocker and other government officials and made multiple trips to Iraq, including several as late as August. Overall, the report noted that “key legislation has not been passed, violence remains high, and it is unclear whether the Iraqi government will spend $10 billion in reconstruction funds.” The news already has floated into media heaven and will likely not be heard again.

The White House’s choreography is impeccable. In August, Bush addressed the American Legion in Reno, Nevada, facing his typically captive and approving audience in a flag-draped setting. After warming up his crowd with Pollyanna promises of better medical care and better pensions, he launched a typical jeremiad on his plans to spread the blessings of freedom and democracy. He offered his familiar message promising to fight terrorism there so we don’t have to fight it here.

The military naturally has a large stake in the surge. A commission of military experts presented a one-size-fits-all report. Retired Marine General James Jones testified that Iraqi police forces are dysfunctional and hopeless. The Iraqi military has some promise but is nearly two years away from being effective and on its own. Still, the commission concluded that the only course is to do more. Shades of Vietnam and the light at the end of the tunnel.

The report was ambiguous enough for Senator John McCain to find “progress”; he said it would be a mistake for Congress to set a firm deadline for withdrawing troops. General Jones dutifully told the committee, “I think deadlines can work against us, and I think a deadline of this magnitude would be against our national interest.” “I thank you,” replied an obviously satisfied McCain. Senator Hillary Clinton noted the report’s emphasis on the lack of any political progress, which, she said, buttressed her view for a firm deadline. General Jones had no reply for her.

General Petraeus calls for the removal of a brigade, but he also talks about maintaining current troop levels and waiting six months for a further evaluation. Buried in there are his remarks about staying the course in 2008–and 2009. One’s eyes glaze over the plethora of words being generated, words at once portraying success but a need for more success; or words that speak of failures but only urge more effort.

Bush clearly is challenging Democratic opponents of the war. Republicans have little stomach for questioning his policies. Senator John Warner, ostensibly a critic of Bush’s policy, appeared with Bush on the podium at the American Legion convention in August. But the President’s assault on his Congressional opponents has another front–this time at the Democrats’ rear, as the Administration mounts an intensive advertising campaign urging people to tell their representatives not to “surrender.” The public relations campaign comes armed with appeals to patriotism phrased so that Democratic opponents of the war appear to be lacking in that virtue.

The chief front group for this is Freedom’s Watch, whose prominent Internet and radio commercials are now are beginning to penetrate the nation. Former aides and supporters of the President, along with high-profile Republicans, have organized the group and have launched a monthlong, $15 million TV, radio and “grassroots activities” with the avowed purpose of pressuring Congress to support Bush’s Iraq strategy. The war’s original explainer and apologist, former press secretary Ari Fleischer, heads the effort. Fleischer bluntly dismissed as “stale” any questions challenging the validity of the war. He and the President want to hold the Democrats’ feet to the fire they so timidly supported in 2002. Fleischer makes one long for Tony Snow.

Television and radio spots feature a wounded Marine eager to return to Iraq–“if I could”, a wounded veteran and a war widow whose uncle died on 9/11. In his video the legless veteran asserts, “We are winning on the ground…It is no time to quit. It is no time for politics.” The Marine boldly attacks Democrats who want to “surrender.” All the ads urge listeners to call their Congressmen and tell them “victory is America’s only choice.” The Swift Boaters are back with sharpened wedge words, most worthy of our Great Divider.

Bush can rely on the public’s lack of interest. The media, always his unwitting but reliable ally, will continue to focus on the scandal du jour or upon Fred Thompson’s earth-shaking pronouncements–“He’s in!” In the meantime, Bush pushes us deeper and deeper into Iraq, determined and defiantly staying his course. The President has put his Democratic opponents into a neat box: If they win the White House in 2008, any attempt to withdraw our forces will only be met with heated, divisive criticism and more charges of surrender. Democrats will be too intimidated–no, paralyzed–to do anything. Indeed, cheerleaders such as Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, offer words from Bush’s vocabulary: “Now’s the time to pour it on.” Bush can count on maintaining his surge, if not beyond.

After leaving Iraq, General Petraeus sent an open letter to those serving under his command. He told them he would appear before Congress “conscious of the strain on our forces,” the sacrifices of soldiers and their families and “the gains we have made in Iraq, the challenges that remain, and the importance of building on what we and our Iraqi counterparts have fought so hard to achieve.” Petraeus is not a man preparing to leave. His appearance will offer coming attractions for Surge 2.