By Jonathan Steele (THE GUARDIAN, 12/01/07):
Forget November’s congressional elections, which showed a huge increase in the American public’s disillusionment with the war in Iraq. Set aside the polls which show that a majority of Americans – as well as Iraqis – want an early pullout of US troops.Those who take the key decisions in Washington are determined to keep US forces there for the long haul. That is the grim message, not just of George Bush’s speech on Wednesday night, but of the Democratic party’s dithering response so far. It would be nice to think the president’s plan to send more troops into the quagmire of Iraq was just another symptom of the madness of King George. One might then hope for sanity to be restored under a new administration in 2009.
There is scant evidence for such optimism. John McCain, the current Republican front-runner, is more hawkish than Bush when it comes to believing military power can solve complex political and socio-economic conflicts. On the Democratic side, most bigwigs fear being tarred as “unpatriotic”. They are trying to create rhetorical distance between themselves and the White House, but without rocking the war-boat. Only Senator Edward Kennedy, who long ago forfeited any chance of becoming president, has had the courage even to demand that the White House require congressional authority to support an increase in the US contingent in Iraq. He is not calling for an end to funding the war itself.
So we will have to wait until the campaign for the presidency starts in earnest next year to see if the remorseless rise in US casualties and the continuing chaos in Iraq push the contenders into serious end-the-war mode. Meanwhile we are left with a president who was never going to admit failure. His speech-writers touched a few new buttons on Wednesday. There was vague acknowledgement of mistakes, a promise that America’s commitment was not open-ended, and even a mention of possible American defeat. But Bush continued to insist on “victory” and avoided any reference to a withdrawal timetable. He may claim to have a “new strategy”, but his course remains unchanged.
Tactical shifts are a different matter. The policies announced this week were picked from various sources, including the study group chaired by former secretary of state James Baker, as well as Pentagon advisers. The notion of a surge in US combat forces to try to stabilise Baghdad and speed up the training of Iraqi units was endorsed by Baker. So was the idea – initially the brainchild of the military – for US troops to be embedded with Iraqi units. Baker and Bush also agree that the US should make extra military and financial help conditional on a sustained effort by the Iraqi government to promote national unity by making concessions to Sunni politicians on de-Ba’athification and guarantees of a share in Iraq’s oil revenue.
The bits of Baker that Bush has not adopted are the call for dialogue with Iran and Syria, and the recommendation that any dispatch of extra US troops must be short-term and part of a larger commitment to pull most US combat troops back to bases by the spring of next year. Instead, Bush is adding extra troops on the same vacuous how-long-is-a-piece-of-string basis that he and Blair have always used.
In military terms, 20,000 extra troops cannot make a difference, as the outgoing US commander, General George Casey, recognised. He declined to argue for this, which is why he is being replaced. The Baker report pointed out that previous combined US and Iraqi offensives in Baghdad, including this summer’s Operation Together Forward, did not work. Violence increased by 43%, as insurgents slipped away before security sweeps and filtered back later. The Project on Defence Alternatives, a respected US thinktank, points out this week that, to have even a small chance of conducting a successful “clear, hold and build” strategy, the US would have to double its troop commitment to 300,000 and keep it in Iraq for 15 years at a cost of at least another 8,000 American lives. This is an investment that the Pentagon cannot afford, and which would drive the American public from electoral protest to outright mutiny.
As for Bush’s effort to hand more power to Iraq’s security forces, it is undermined by their increasingly sectarian loyalties. Large sections of the army as well as the police are controlled by commanders with partisan agendas. Four days of fierce fighting this week by US and Iraqi troops in Baghdad’s Haifa Street, less than two miles from the Green Zone, are undermining a Sunni area for the benefit of radical Shias, as well as causing heavy destruction.
The most disastrous part of Bush’s plan is his pressure on the Maliki government to let US troops enter Baghdad’s 2 million-strong Shia district, Sadr City, with all-out force, in order to smash Moqtada al-Sadr’s militias. This could produce a civilian bloodbath of colossal proportions, dwarfing the massacres in Falluja in 2004. The US plan to bring Kurdish peshmerga units into Baghdad is equally dangerous. They may provide an element of professionalism and neutrality, but they are outsiders who do not know the terrain or the language, thereby ensuring they will quickly acquire the image of foreign occupiers that already dogs the Americans.
Iraq today presents the US with even more of a lose-lose situation than it did in 2003. Adding more troops only compounds the original mistake. The country’s 15 Arab provinces are engaged in a deep struggle for power between fundamentalist Shias and disempowered Sunnis, with Baghdad as the central prize, and the US can do nothing to influence the outcome. In spite of repeated promises to find a national consensus, the Shia-led Maliki government showed its true colours when it rushed to execute Saddam Hussein and turned the occasion into a sectarian lynching. With allies like these, what enemies does Washington need?
Iraq’s chaos can only be resolved by political means. Even at this late stage, Shia and Sunni political and religious leaders could reach a national consensus through dialogue and compromise. They alone have the ability to control their own militias and end the violence. Bribing or bullying by Washington will not help. Outsiders cannot resolve other countries’ civil wars.
A full and early US withdrawal is long overdue. It will not bring an immediate end to Iraq’s tragedy, and in the short term the killing may get worse. But that is the ultimate cost of an invasion that should not have happened, and which most Iraqi Arabs never wanted.