Published: January 12 2007
George W. Bush’s new direction in Iraq is certainly not a strategy for victory, whatever that word, which is used ever more desperately by the US president, now means. It may be one last heave. It may be a cover for US withdrawal. But two things are quite clear.
Right now, Mr Bush has the support of no more than one in four Americans for this so-called surge of an extra 20,000 or so troops. Very soon, as the already indecipherable ethnic and sectarian patchwork of Iraq is pulled further and even more bloodily to pieces, he will have none.
Second, this policy will not succeed in fixing an Iraq traumatised by tyranny and war and then broken by invasion and occupation. But it may end with the US “surging” into Iran – and taking the Middle East to a new level of mayhem that will spill into nearby regions and western capitals.
Mr Bush’s body language in the speech bespoke a chastened man. Yet, caught in a wilfully spun web of delusion and denial, he seems still unable to comprehend the depths of the debacle he has caused in Iraq.
Iraq has reached advanced societal breakdown, with ethnic cleansing on a regional, neighbourhood and even street-by-street basis. There has been a mass exodus of its professionals and managers, civil servants and entrepreneurs, a haemorrhage of its future. The time for the occupying authorities to have surged was 2003, after the fall of Baghdad; like everything they have tried since, this is far too little, much too late. The US deployed a similar number of troops last summer to “lock down” Baghdad, since when the number of killed in the capital alone has rocketed to more than 100 a day, while on average an attack occurs against Anglo-American forces every 10 minutes, and this in a fight now mainly between the minority Sunni deposed from power and the hitherto dispossessed Shia majority drunk with it.
It is hard, even for ardent democrats, to see this Iraq as a young democracy fighting for its life, as Mr Bush’s discourse of good guys against bad guys would have it. The invasion has solidified a system divided into sects and operating on the basis of patronage and intimidation. The composition of parliament is nearly two thirds Islamist. There are no institutions. Ministries are sectarian booty and factional bastions. The one institution that did more or less survive Saddam Hussein, the national army, was disbanded by the occupation and current attempts to reconstitute it have failed to move beyond rebadged militia. The three brigades the Shia-dominated government of Nuri al-Maliki has promised to add to the five extra US brigades are mostly Peshmerga – Kurdish militiamen – adding another account to be settled once the Americans withdraw.
What is still, in spite of Mr Bush’s attempts to dress it up, an essentially military strategy is just not credible. The US army is not designed to deal with insurgency and, in any case, does not have the troops to master one on this scale – especially if its own masters are planning to open a new front.
It has failed to control the insurgency in the Sunni triangle – a rebellion by a minority of the minority. Now it aims to confront Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shia radical, and his 60,000-strong Mahdi army, in a fight that could set fire to east Baghdad and south Iraq, where British troops could easily be enveloped in the flames.
The contradiction at the heart of the US approach, however, is this: after casually overturning the Sunni order in Iraq and empowering the Shia in an Arab heartland country for the first time in nearly a millennium, Washington took fright at the way this had enlarged the power of the Shia Islamist regime in Iran. Now, while dependent on Tehran-aligned forces in Baghdad, and unable to dismantle the Sunni Jihadistan it has created in western Iraq, the US is trying to put together an Arab Sunni alliance against Iran. This is a fiasco with the fuel to combust into a region-wide conflagration.
The only feasible way forward is the approach of the bipartisan Baker-Hamilton commission – which the new US Congress should embrace and insist on.
This would make support for the Iraqi government and army conditional on their real effort to promote national reconciliation, which would in turn, as it progressed, be rewarded with billions of dollars in long-term aid from the US and Iraq’s neighbours. This external support – from Turkey to Saudi Arabia and Iran to Syria – would be built up within a wide-ranging diplomatic offensive in the region that would include Tehran and Damascus. Mr Bush is instead threatening to expand the war.
“Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops” he said on Wednesday. “We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria.” The Iraq surge is beginning to look like the Vietnam escalation, spilling over into Iran and Syria the way that one did into Cambodia and Laos.
Mr Bush is right to argue that defeat in Iraq would be very serious. He is wrong in failing to recognise defeat is what he is staring at – and that this approach will help guarantee it.