Recently, Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has shown striking signs of wanting to be his own man in Baghdad, not Washington’s (as has Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul). What happens when parrots suddenly speak and puppets squawk on their own? The answer, it seems, is simple enough: You listen in; so, at least, the lastest revelations of journalist Bob Woodward seem to indicate. "The Bush administration," reports the Washington Post, "has conducted an extensive spying operation on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, his staff and others in the Iraqi government, according to a new book by Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward. ‘We know everything [Maliki] says,’ according to one of multiple sources Woodward cites about the practice." This is perhaps what is meant when it’s claimed that President Bush and Maliki have a "close working relationship."

An Iraqi government spokesman responded to the revelation with shock: "If it is a fact, it reflects that there is no trust and it reflects also that the institutions in the United States are used to spying on their friends and their enemies in the same way. If it is true, it casts a shadow on the future relations with such institutions."

"Trust"? Please… Wasn’t that always just a synonym for electronic eavesdropping?

As for "success" in Iraq, which we’ve been hearing quite a lot about lately in the U.S., here’s one way to measure the administration’s trust in its own "success": The Pentagon, we now learn, has just "recommended" to President Bush that there should be no further troop drawdowns in Iraq until a new president enters office in January 2009 — and even then, possibly in February, that no more than 7,500 Americans should be withdrawn, and only if "conditions" permit. So the administration’s "success" in Iraq could, in terms of troop levels, be measured this way: The U.S. invaded and occupied that country in the spring of 2003 with approximately 130,000 troops. According to Thomas Ricks in his bestselling book Fiasco, by that fall, its top officials fully expected to have only about 30,000 troops still in the country, stationed at newly built American bases largely outside major urban areas.

In January 2007, when the President’s desperate "surge" strategy was launched, there were still approximately 130,000 U.S. troops in the country, and, of course, tens of thousands of hired guns from firms like Blackwater Worldwide. Today, there are approximately 146,000 troops in Iraq (and the U.S. is spending more money on armed "private security contractors" than ever before). By next February, according to Pentagon plans, there would still be about 139,000 troops in Iraq, 9,000 more than in April 2003, as well as more than early in Bush’s second term, as Juan Cole pointed out recently — and that’s if everything goes reasonably well, which, under the circumstances, is a big "if" indeed.

As Michael Schwartz, sociologist and author of the forthcoming book War Without End: The Iraq War in Context, indicates (in a new piece, "Who Lost Iraq?"), for all the talk over the years about "tipping points" reached and "corners" turned, it’s just possible that — while the Bush administration and the McCain campaign are pounding the drums of "success" — the U.S. might be heading for an unexpected and resounding tipping-point-style defeat. Moreover, it might well be administered by the very Iraqi government Washington has supported all these years, whose true allies may turn out to be living not in Camp Victory, the huge U.S. base on the outskirts of Baghdad, but in Tehran. "The question remains," he concludes, "Can anything reverse the centripetal forces pulling Iraq from Washington’s orbit? Will the President’s ‘surge’ strategy prove to have been the nail in the coffin of its hopes for U.S. dominance in the Middle East?" Or, put another way, the question is: just how will the Bush administration wrest actual defeat from the jaws of self-proclaimed victory.