It is time to say I told you so

Jurek Martin

Financial Times

Published: January 12 2007

I never like saying “I told you so” but on the morning after President George W. Bush told his country more American troops were needed in Iraq I cannot refrain from doing so. I will even cite previous occasions when I might have. 

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 catastrophe, I wrote that although all logic suggested the US abandon its unilateralist foreign policy I would not bet on it with this president. And so it came to pass. 

A year before the US actually invaded Iraq I wrote that the die had already been cast and that any attempt to legitimize the operation through the United Nations would be pure window dressing – and sops to Tony Blair and Colin Powell. That, too, proved true. 

On the November morning after Democrats had regained control of Congress in midterm elections determined, in good measure, by the war in Iraq, I predicted that all the talk of bipartisanship from this president would prove to be just that – only talk. And it has been.

I also noted that although Dick Cheney appeared diminished by the elections and the departures from key policy-making positions of his loyal cadre, he could still play the game, even with fewer cards. Wednesday night showed that true in spades redoubled. 

I take no pride in getting it right. I acknowledge a debt to PG Wodehouse, whose master butler-fixer Jeeves always relied on his understanding of the “psychology of the individual”. Mr Bush’s mental make-up is a fairly open book, alternately stubborn and messianic. 

One sad aspect of this is that truth to the president is very relative. On Wednesday night he asserted bald-faced that US military escalation was to fulfil the plan drawn up by Nouri al-Maliki. But every report out of Baghdad in the last 24 hours said the Iraqi prime minister does not want more GIs on the ground or embedded with his own soldiers, especially if his political ally, Moqtada el-Sadr, is a target. 

It is not even clear from his speech that the president really grasps the extent of the mess in Iraq (even his admission to “mistakes” was conditionally phrased in the passive tense). And he apparently clings to the belief that threatening Iran and Syria, not talking to them, is the only way to bring them to heel. 

His words still come directly from the neocon playbook for the Middle East – with the caveat that most that brigade want many more than the 20,000 additional American troops he has committed.  

(They really should be re-christened neokons, because so many – Kristol, Krauthammer, a couple of Kagans, Kaufman – have surnames beginning with the 11th letter of the alphabet: even Henry Kissinger, though not of the fraternity, appears an occasional fellow traveller). 

Their black-and-white siren song, with Dick Kheney on lead vocals, still resonates with the president far more than the nuanced real world melodies of James Baker, Lee Hamilton and the rest of the Iraq Study Group. If there is a different, more moderate tune in the state department, Condoleezza Rice, increasingly either cipher or sphinx, never sings it. 

They still want to reshape the Middle East to their liking. Thus the possibility of some kind of military confrontation with Iran, either conducted by the US itself or by Israel, remains on the table, regardless of reality. The presence of another battle fleet in the region, plus the air raids against al-Qaeda in anarchic Somalia, cannot be seen merely as protective measures. 

The Rumsfeld reign of terror at the Pentagon may be history but a new set of gung-ho generals now runs the war in Iraq. One of them, David Petraeus, did well with the Kurds in the early post-war stages before being shunted off to a desk, where he wrote the paper on counter-insurgency techniques he can now try and implement on a national scale. He had better succeed but he will need Iraqi help, not necessarily forthcoming. Otherwise the cupboard is bare.

The second war, on the domestic front, has now been joined in earnest. The Democrats may control the purse but it will be hard for them not to fund American troops in the field. It is even harder to run foreign policy from Capitol Hill. But, with disillusioned Republicans joining them, it is also easier to launch full-fronted criticism and oversight of whatever comes next.

The political balance is delicate. It could be upset if Joe Lieberman, now a nominal independent, bolts the Democratic caucus, throwing Senate control back to the Republicans. It would not last long, though, because I predict Susan Collins of Maine, or some other deeply disaffected Republican, will do their duty and go the other way.

It is all so reminiscent of Vietnam, another unpopular war, with an isolated delusional president, a new defence secretary, reshuffles in the military command and an increasingly critical body politic and media. Only demonstrations in the street are still lacking.

I am leaving town for three weeks, not the best of times to do it but not the worst either. I predict not much will have changed when I get back, but it would be nice to be wrong. And you’ll read it here first.