Iraq has become a weapon in America’s political war

By Gideon Rachman

Financial Times

Published: March 27 2007

I was sitting in a café in Washington, DC, last week, reading the papers, when I came across an article that almost made me choke on my blueberry muffin. The gist of the story was that the American military “surge” in Iraq is working. Baghdad is more secure; there are fewer sectarian killings; the number of bombings is down; the policy of “clear and hold” is proving effective.

My reaction had nothing to do with incredulity – although that might well have been in order, given last week’s rash of fatal explosions and mortar attacks in the Iraqi capital. No, I am ashamed to say that I caught myself thinking: “Oh no! I wrote that the surge was a bad idea. If it works, I might look silly.” Unfortunately, I think that kind of reaction is hardly unique in Washington these days. As Congress battles over a new Iraq policy, there are two Iraq wars going on. There is the real war, thousands of miles away, in which people are dying. And there is the domestic political war in Washington, where “Iraq” is above all a means to wrong-foot your political opponents.

With the 2008 presidential election campaign already under way, it is this second war that increasingly matters most. The Democrats, who have just regained control of Congress and have the White House in their sights, are moving to a policy that amounts to little more than “troops out”. The party’s leaders – divided among themselves – have very little to say about what may happen after the Americans leave. Politically, morally and strategically this is a stupid position to get into.

Take the politics first: the mainstream Democratic position, reflected in bills before the House and Senate, is to push for the withdrawal of American troops by the middle of 2008. This reflects American public opinion. So the Democrats can (and do) argue that they have a duty to respond to the strong anti-war vote in November’s Congressional elections.

But in the ideal world politicians are paid to think through the consequences of their actions. If the Democrats pursue an irresponsible policy, they may ultimately pay a political price for it. If they delay funding for the war, in their efforts to impose a deadline for withdrawal, President George W. Bush will accuse them of undermining the troops. And if American troops pull out while violence is still raging, the bloodshed and chaos in Iraq could worsen dramatically. At that point, the Democrats might get some of the blame currently reserved for the war’s true author – President Bush.

The Democrats like to think that campaigning for a quick end to the war gives them the moral, as well as the political, high ground. So it would, if an end to the war were synonymous with an end to violence. But the fact is that a swift US withdrawal, without a proper political and regional settlement, would probably leave Iraqis in the midst of a civil war. Having started a disastrous conflict, the US surely has a moral obligation to try to mitigate its worst consequences – and that must mean trying to restore security before leaving.

A premature withdrawal would also mean gambling with American strategic interests. The various frightening scenarios for what happens if the US leaves Iraq in chaos are gruesomely familiar: a civil war, the establishment of new bases for terrorists, greatly expanded Iranian influence in the region, military intervention by Iraq’s neighbours. None of these things is inevitable. America could get lucky. But the Democrats’ argument that American withdrawal will somehow force Iraqis to achieve a lasting political settlement sounds too convenient by half.

But how could anyone who thinks all that have opposed the surge in the first place? Well, at the time the surge was announced back in January it came in the context of the Bush administration’s rejection of the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton report to engage Iran and Syria in talks about the stabilisation of Iraq. It was also apparent that the number of troops being committed to the surge were far below the levels originally advocated, even by the policy’s own staunchest supporters. A purely military solution, without adequate resources behind it, did not look like a good proposition.

It may well be the case that, even post-surge, America will have too few troops on the ground to regain control of the situation. Since the new US troops are still arriving, it will be impossible to form a proper judgment until the summer at the earliest. But even a modest improvement in security has to be welcome, for humanitarian and political reasons.

More important, it looks as if the Bush administration may be about quietly to embrace the main recommendation of the Baker report: regional peace talks. Last week in Washington a senior administration official (to use the required formula) told me that Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, hopes to meet her Iranian and Syrian counterparts to talk about Iraq before the end of April.

Escalating tensions with Iran over United Nations sanctions and British hostages may yet delay or scupper any such ambition. And, even if talks take place, it seems unlikely that the Iranians and Syrians will take a friendly and co-operative attitude. If regional talks really are to bear fruit it will be a long process and will probably have to be widened to take in related issues that America currently wants to keep off the table – in particular Iranian nuclear ambitions and the Middle East peace process.

But, over the long term, what hope there is for stabilising Iraq, stemming the bloodshed and securing western interests must involve a combination of three elements: improved security in Iraq, a political settlement within the country and a calming of tensions within the region. All three elements are obviously linked, given the connections between Iraq’s militias and political parties, and their external sponsors.

Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that even the most adept combination of diplomacy and force will deliver a sustainable improvement in the situation in Iraq. Things may be too far gone for that. But the grimness of the situation only emphasises the need for American politicians to devote their efforts to the real Iraq war rather than the political war at home. For, hard as it may be to believe in Washington, there are some things that are even more important than who wins the next presidential election.