At last, Bush faced with obvious truth on Iraq

By Philip Stephens

Financial Times

Published: December 8 2006

About one thing George W. Bush is right; though, unsurprisingly, for the wrong reasons. There can be no “graceful exit” from Iraq. America faces a resounding defeat. The eventual cost, in lost prestige and influence in the Middle East and beyond as well as in blood and treasure in Iraq, will be immense. It may seem trivial to Iraqis.

A year ago, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group might have hoped to supply the architecture for a half-elegant US departure. That was always an over-ambitious aim. In any event, it was overtaken some time ago by the rapid escalation in Iraq of sectarian violence.

Robert Gates, the US defence secretary-designate, got it right when he told the Senate defence committee this week: “It’s my impression that, frankly, there are no new ideas on Iraq.” The study group’s task thus became to put existing ideas together in such a way as to oblige Mr Bush to change course.

We cannot be sure the president will listen. The risk is that Mr Bush will seek to cherry pick. But the White House’s options are narrowing fast. In this respect the group has fulfilled its mandate. The report is candid and concise in description, pragmatic in analysis. The tone is set by the opening sentence: “The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating.”

The report’s great service has been to state the obvious. America has lost control in Iraq and its influence is diminishing further by the day. If the US administration is to have even a slight chance of salvaging something from the wreckage, it must admit the connections it has so far denied. That means between security, politics and reconstruction within Iraq and, outside, with the array of other conflicts and tensions across the region. Above all, the report says, the Arab-Israeli conflict can no longer be ignored; nor can the influence and interests of Syria and Iran.

Nothing new there, you might say. Britain’s Tony Blair and nearly everyone in Washington outside the administration, have been saying something similar. But the timing and provenance of this report matter. The end game is more about US politics than about the grim realities in Iraq.

Last month’s mid-term elections saw the American people bluntly reject the administration’s approach in favour of disengagement. As co-chairman of the study group, James Baker, a former Republican secretary of state and long-time Bush family consigliere, carries more clout than the president has ever been comfortable with. Lee Hamilton, the former Democratic congressman, gives the report its all-important bipartisan stamp.

The administration’s inner torture, meanwhile, has been regularly bleeding into the pages of the New York Times. Every time Mr Bush reaches for another mantra about accomplishing the mission, the publication of another classified memorandum tells the story of an administration bereft of any strategy.

The most chilling example is a leaked Pentagon missive written by Donald Rumsfeld. There could be no better illustration than Mr Rumsfeld’s private musings of the hubristic incompetence that has led America into this mess.

The sacked defence secretary recently remarked that the defence department was getting along fine with its “piece” of Iraq, a curious choice of words given his insistence from the outset that he retain full charge of the conduct of the war. His memorandum, which history will surely rate as one of the most shallow documents ever written by a politician carrying such grave responsibilities, tells a different story.

The soon-to-depart Mr Rumsfeld admits that the US is failing: “In my view, it is time for a major adjustment.” He then produces a laundry list of alternative approaches. Almost casually, he admits that these putative changes – from US troop withdrawals and redeployments to cash bribes for friendly political and religious leaders in Iraq – may well not work.

No matter. Whatever decisions the US takes, he suggests, should be on a trial basis: “This will give us the ability to readjust and move to another course, if necessary, and therefore not ‘lose’.” Not lose? Where has Mr Rumsfeld been?

One suggestion for dealing with the upsurge in violence conveys the sheer vacuousness of it all. The US, he scolds in the manner of a parent set to punish a naughty child, must not reward “bad behaviour”. It should cut off aid to any towns and villages where there is any violence. In other words, entire Iraqi communities should be punished for the actions of insurgents. Just the way to win hearts and minds.

Yet Mr Rumsfeld has not been alone. Fear of rewarding bad behaviour remains the stated rationale for the administration’s refusal to engage Syria and Iran in an effort to stabilise Iraq. That might have had some superficial logic during that brief spell some years ago when American power seemed poised to sweep away all its enemies. Now it simply marries failed ideology with chronic weakness.

The study group has its own laundry list. Its recommendations run to nearly 80. They are strongest in their understanding of the intricate power struggles – between Shia, Sunni and Kurd, the secular and Islamist as well as Arab and Israeli – that now describe the Middle East. Above all, it recognises: “There must be a renewed and sustained commitment by the United States to a comprehensive Arab-Israel peace on all fronts.”

Other recommendations are less convincing. Many are a reminder that the group’s first priority is to map a path for US disengagement rather than necessarily to fix Iraq. Some carry the impression that the Iraqis are being blamed for the shortcomings of the US. The binding thread is a proposed withdrawal from Iraq of all US combat brigades by early 2008. If the carnage in Iraq has shaped the politics of Washington, those politics will now determine America’s future in Iraq. In spite of its flaws, though, the report offers an intellectual coherence that has thus far been so sadly lacking.

What all this demands of Mr Bush is nothing less than the complete up-ending of his foreign policy. The goal of spreading democracy remains a noble one. But a crude vision of a world in thrall to America’s military might must be replaced by one that recognises both the complexities of foreign policy and the limitations of US power. That may well be too much for this president to grasp. And it may, anyway, be too late for Iraq. But the delusions of the past few years are at last being swept away.