President Bush's latest plan for Iraq is constructed on the flimsiest of foundations

26 May 2004

President Bush's speech on Monday evening setting out his Iraq policy was addressed to several different audiences. It was designed to still the audible murmurings of disquiet among the Republican faithful in Congress, to convince sceptical Iraqis that the US is sincere in its determination to hand over control of their country, and to persuade the anxious international community that America was, at last, taking account of the opinion of others. His most important audience, however, was the wider American public, which will pass its own judgement upon Mr Bush in November, and is increasingly fearful that the Iraq mission is becoming a disaster.

Mr Bush offered a predictable show of resolution. As usual, there was not the slightest admission of error or misjudgement. Once again, he attempted to present his Iraq campaign as part of the "war on terror". And at every juncture, the glass was presented as more than half full, rather than half empty. There was no mention of Washington's abandonment of Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi exile leader whose false promises helped draw a gullible administration into today's mess.

The only genuine news in the speech, that the infamous prison of Abu Ghraib would be destroyed (with the permission, naturally, of the new Iraqi government), had itself been heavily trailed. Only briefly did the President mention the despicable behaviour of US troops at Abu Ghraib, whose name he unfortunately but typically mangled. Otherwise, Mr Bush repackaged existing policy into a five-step plan that was intended to convey the impression, at least, of a firm hand at the tiller.

Peer a little closer, however, and the "plan" proves to be an edifice constructed on the most fragile foundations. Sovereignty will be handed over to Iraqis on 30 June, Mr Bush assured - but what if Ayatollah Sistani, the Shia leader who is the most powerful Iraqi politician, rejects the new transitional government assembled by the United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi?

The US-led multinational force will continue to guarantee security for as long as needed. But its performance so far leaves a lot to be desired, to put it mildly. What guarantee exists of improvement? And if the violence persists, Mr Bush's third commitment, to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure, will ring even more hollow.

Everyone agrees on the fourth element of the President's plan, the expansion of international support. But after initial polite applause, the French and the Russians are already picking holes in the draft resolution before the UN Security Council.

Finally, part five, the achievement that seals Mr Bush's entire Iraqi enterprise - elections by next January, at the latest, for a constituent assembly that will produce a constitution under which a permanent national government will be elected by the end of 2005. But will Iraq be a safe enough place to permit this, and can Shias, Sunnis and Kurds achieve enough common ground for the process to go forward? The hard truth is that a President who prides himself on his ability to shape the agenda is utterly at the mercy of events. No wonder Mr Bush gave no firm deadline for US troops to leave Iraq, and took a pass on the crucial question of relations between the "sovereign" Iraqi government and the US military after 30 June.

It is possible that the President has achieved his minimum objective of shoring up morale at home, for a short while at least, and halting the slide in his approval ratings. No Bush speech was ever going to win over the 45 per cent or so of the electorate whose only desire is to evict him from the White House. There will be five more "major" presidential addresses on Iraq before the 30 June hand-over. But if there are many more suicide bombings, urban insurgencies and US casualties, even far finer words that those Mr Bush uttered on Monday evening will not matter a whit, and he will end up a one-term President like his father.