Once more unto the breach

By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 11/01/07):

In the manner of Henry V, with terrible aspect of eye, George Bush last night invited the American people to follow him once more unto the Iraqi breach. But with his leadership in unprecedented doubt, with Baghdad's daily mayhem unabated, and with 20,000 additional soldiers heading into harm's way, the public is evidently alarmed that their president will instead close the wall up with American dead. Agincourt it ain't.Mr Bush's revised strategy can hardly be called "new". Many key elements have been tried before, without much success. What is different now is the high level of presidential commitment to the plan, and the extent to which Mr Bush's personal prestige and his White House legacy are riding on its outcome.

Republican supporters profess to admire his "not-for-turning" Thatcheresque grit. But for critics such as columnist Paul Krugman, Mr Bush's Iraq bungling has created a "a quagmire of the vanities - a place where America is spending blood and treasure to protect the egos of men who won't admit that they were wrong".

For all Iraq's myriad challenges, some US analysts suggest Mr Bush will face greater difficulty keeping his policy on track at home. The joint chiefs of staff advised against the troop increase. If things go badly, Mr Bush can expect trouble in that quarter. The likely need to deploy six additional National Guard brigades by 2008, to back up regular troops, is certain meanwhile to spread the pain of the war.

Public displeasure is already at record levels, with only 26% of those polled comfortable with Mr Bush's handling of the conflict. The mushrooming cost (the president will soon ask Congress for an extra $100bn in war funding), growing equipment shortages, and an expected surge in US casualties may all fuel political and public revolt.

Democratic party leaders are biding their time, initially planning non-binding votes in opposition to the plan. But as Senator Joe Biden acknowledges, their long-term aim is to isolate Mr Bush. "The president will get a great deal of immediate, strong criticism. He expects that," said Patrick Cronin of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "But if by this time next year, things have not improved in Iraq, he will have very little wind left in his sails. He really will be out on his own."

At the Baghdad end of America's Iraq conundrum, the Bush plan faces daunting obstacles of a different nature. A senior US official involved in drawing up the revised strategy said doubts persisted about the willingness and ability of prime minister Nuri al-Maliki to "confront his own power base" by helping US forces defang Shia militias. "If we're going to end the sectarianism, we or Iraqi forces are going to have to fight people like [militia leader Moqtada] al-Sadr," the official said. Iraq's national army had become "a sectarian force" and its high command badly needed reform.

Other key obstacles were the unwillingness of Kurdish and Shia leaders to support strong national institutions, and the future attitude of Iran and Syria, given that Mr Bush has ignored the Iraq Study Group's advice to seek their help. But the official suggested that the doubling of civilian-led provincial support teams was a sound step. "If Iraq ever gets sorted out, it will be sorted on the ground, from the ground up, at local, sub-district and provincial level, with things like job creation and reform of the local police," the official said.

"I give him a 40% chance of making enough progress to keep going," Dr Cronin said. "It's not too late. But what may change in America matters more than what changes in Iraq. We're in for a long slog. There's going to be a lot of fighting. Does the US have the patience for it?" If the answer is no, Mr Bush will become not so much a lame duck as a dead duck - and Iraq a lost cause.