Published: January 12 2007
There have been two wars in Iraq. The first has been the one in the mind of George W. Bush – in the brilliant phrase of the American scholar Mark Danner, a war of the imagination*. This designates Iraq as the cockpit of a Manichean struggle against Islamist terrorism. Victory is the only option if, in the president’s words this week, the US is not to surrender the future to extremists.
The second war has been the one we watch nightly on our television screens – the insurgency-cum-sectarian bloodletting that has cost 3,000 American and countless times as many Iraqi lives. In this grindingly vicious, increasingly complex conflict the US has for some time been facing defeat.
Last November the two wars, the imagined and the real, might well have converged. The heavy losses suffered by the Republicans in the mid-term elections carried the message that America had lost faith in Mr Bush’s war. The voters wanted the troops to come home. Even as they spoke, the Baker-Hamilton study group concluded with commendable candour that the real war was indeed being lost. Surely, the pretence would have to end.
Those who thought so underestimated, if that is the right word, Mr Bush. The president, as we heard again this week, will not let go of the war of the imagination.
Iraq is fracturing along its sectarian and ethnic fault lines; the government of Nouri al-Maliki is propped up by Moktada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army, the nastiest of the Shia militias; the Sunni insurgency is undiminished; Iran and Syria are doing their best to stir further mischief. Mr Bush’s answer is another 20,000 troops and a change in the rules of engagement.
This, it should be recalled, is not the first overhaul of Iraq policy. In November 2005, the White House published a National Strategy for Victory in Iraq. Much of what Mr Bush said this week echoes that document. Sceptics will recall that the latest escalation of American forces will do little more than restore them to the levels of 15 months ago.
In its own terms it makes sense, as Mr Bush now proposes, to embark on a determined effort to pacify Baghdad as a building block for reconciliation and reconstruction. Few would quarrel, either, with the president’s stern warning that Mr Maliki must reach out to marginalised Sunnis and former Ba’athists. To have the slimmest chance of stabilising Iraq, the US must break the vicious circle that holds politics hostage to violence and security to political deadlock.
Mr Bush, though, has willed the ends without the means. Even if Iraq’s Shia leadership is willing to tame its militias – a doubtful proposition – 20,000 additional US troops is woefully inadequate. Treble or quadruple that number, military strategists say, and a “clear and hold” strategy in Baghdad might just work. In any event, Mr Bush has announced that the so-called surge is strictly temporary, thus further diminishing its likely effectiveness.
Missing too is a political roadmap, for Iraq or for the region. Necessary though it is, admonishing Mr Maliki to engage the Sunnis is not of itself a strategy for political reconciliation. Reminding Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan that they have an important stake in Iraq’s stability likewise does not substitute for engagement with Iran and Syria.
Here, Mr Bush has ignored the Baker-Hamilton insight that it will be impossible to stabilise Iraq without at least the tacit acceptance of its neighbours and above all of Iran. To the president’s mind, talking to your enemies is an admission of defeat. The irony is that, in the context of Iraq, to refuse to engage with those enemies makes a certainty of defeat.
What we are left with, then, is a president still fighting the simple war he thought he had started in 2003. This owes nothing to the bloody tapestry created by myriad power struggles in Iraq. Instead, America is facing a finite number of Ba’athist and foreign diehards who, with resolve, can be beaten in battle.
Mr Bush, of course, has not been alone in his delusions during these past few years. It is not that long since Dick Cheney, the vice-president, was publicly declaring the insurgency to be in “its last throes”. It will be for historians to judge when precisely the US lost the war. To my mind, though, there is a good case to pinpoint two moments almost at the outset. The first was Donald Rumsfeld’s response to the rioting and looting in the aftermath of the fall of Baghdad. “Stuff happens,” the then defence secretary breezed, even as he prepared to reduce US troop levels in the face of rising disorder. Soon after, the administration handed the enemy 350,000 recruits by disbanding the army and purging Ba’athists.
The sadness is that the descent into chaos was predicted as well as predictable. In 1999 the generals and policymakers in Washington carried out a series of planning exercises for the occupation of Iraq. The now unclassified conclusions have recently been published by the National Security Archive.
“A change in regime,” the authors of the exercise code-named Desert Crossing noted, “does not guarantee stability . . . aggressive neighbours, fragmentation along religious and/or ethnic lines, and chaos created by rival forces bidding for power could adversely affect stability”.
They calculated that a force of 400,000 and an occupation lasting perhaps a decade would be necessary to build stable self-government in Baghdad. Even then, the assumption was that retribution against the Ba’athists would be limited and the army would be kept intact.
The point these policymakers came back to again and again was a need to reach an accommodation with the regional powers, if necessary by ending the isolation of Iran. With what now seems like extraordinary prescience but at the time was seen as common sense, they cautioned: “More so than any other country in the region, mismanagement of Iran, with all its capabilities and possible intentions, could be disastrous for the United States and the coalition.” And so it has proved.
One temptation now is to see Mr Bush’s latest strategy as a cynical manoeuvre. It might be an effort to run down the clock of his presidency – leaving the Saigon moment to his successor. Alternatively, the president might be seeking political cover for retreat later in the year – the administration could at least say it had done its best. My own inclination is to believe the worst. Mr Bush is still fighting that other war.
*New York Review of Books, December 21 2006