Sunday, August 20, 2006

Bush's final gamble: giving Iraq a dictator?

Andrew Sullivan

The news was buried in a New York Times story last week but it confirmed what others in the Washington chattering classes have been observing lately.

The context is that the White House has been inviting outsiders in to the Oval Office to discuss strategy in Iraq. The new chief of staff Josh Bolten has apparently been trying to pierce the intellectual cocoon in which the president comfortably resides. Bush family consigliere James Baker has already been asked to rescue the president’s failed Iraq policy.

But last week the new nugget: an anonymous “military affairs expert” attended a White House briefing and reported: “Senior administration officials have acknowledged to me that they are considering alternatives other than democracy. Everybody in the administration is being quite circumspect, but you can sense their own concern that this is drifting away from democracy.”

Indeed. The number of civilian casualties in what can now only be called Iraq’s civil war grows with each month. The thousands of innocent Iraqis killed in the past month dwarfs the civilian losses in Lebanon and Israel. The attempt by Nouri al-Maliki’s government to put down sectarian warfare in Baghdad has failed, requiring more US troops in the capital and thus abandoning the heartland of the insurgency, Anbar, to the enemy. General John Abizaid, head of American forces in the Middle East, told the Senate earlier this month that violence in Iraq is “probably as bad as I’ve seen it, in Baghdad in particular”.

Last Wednesday more grim statistics emerged. The number of roadside bomb attacks are at an all-time high. In July 1,666 “improvised explosive devices” exploded and 959 were discovered before they went off. In January 1,454 bombs exploded or were found. That’s the wrong direction, and it’s after an elected unity government has been installed.

A Pentagon official anonymously told the press last week: “The insurgency has got worse by almost all measures, with insurgent attacks at historically high levels. The insurgency has more public support and is demonstrably more capable in numbers of people active and in its ability to direct violence than at any point in time.”

Remember Dick Cheney’s comments about the insurgency being in its “last throes”? Those words have become as credible as the president’s denial of torture as an interrogation policy authorised by the White House.

There comes a point at which even Bush’s platinum-strength levels of denial have to bow to reality. That point may be now. Why else would he be reading Albert Camus’s existentialist masterpiece, The Stranger, in Texas?

Recently Bush has been wondering why the Shi’ites in southern Iraq have displayed such ingratitude to the man who liberated them from Saddam. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that a populace terrorised by sectarian murder, nonexistent government and near anarchy might feel angry at the man who rid them of dictatorship but then refused to provide a minimal level of security for the aftermath. And so, the frustrated born-again neocon in Bush may be ceding to the caucus of those dubbed the “to-hell-with-them” hawks.

This conservative caucus never liked the neocon argument for removing Saddam. They didn’t like nation building and didn’t believe that Iraqis were capable of democracy. They wanted to remove a WMD threat but, most of all, they wanted to strike terror into the heart of the enemy by showing what US military might could do.

Depose Saddam, remove the weapons, install a client dictator and leave as much rubble behind: that was the game plan. It would deter the Iranians and leave a light military footprint. It had Donald Rumsfeld written all over it and it helps explain a lot about the Bush administration’s dogged refusal to add more troops in the first few months after the invasion.

Rumsfeld and Cheney may well be the key proponents of this argument. It is, of course, stupid. When you are dealing with a generational struggle to defang Islamist extremism, your central weapon is winning over moderate Muslims and Arabs. You do the reverse by bombing a country into chaos and then leaving.

When one of the biggest threats in a terrorised world are failed states in the Middle East, why create another one in Iraq? When western unity and intelligence sharing is essential, why pursue a strategy that is almost guaranteed to divide allies and unite all Muslims under the extremist banner?

What’s done is done, however. But the Bush administration knows that its Iraq debacle is central to its legacy and future. What’s interesting in the latest polls — in the middle of the Israel-Lebanon war and the foiled terror plot that shut Heathrow — is how Iraq is still more important to Americans than the more general issue of terrorism.

Pollster John Zogby opined: “President Bush’s numbers mainly reflect the country’s thinking on the war in Iraq, and most people have made up their minds that the war overall has not been worth the loss of American lives. Terrorism is an important issue to Americans, but when it comes to judging Bush’s presidency, their decision is based largely on Iraq.”

Pessimism about Iraq has deepened on every front since the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Last week’s Pew poll found that 63% believed that the US was “losing ground” in preventing a civil war in Iraq. Among Republicans, the numbers have dropped 16% on this question in the past two months alone. More worryingly, a clear majority now believes that Bush is not a “strong leader” and “not trustworthy”, two key qualities Bush once had commanding support on.

And anti-incumbent feeling is stronger than at any time since the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. One poll last week had Bush’s ratings at a new low of 34%. Crunch time approaches.

If the Republicans are to recover by November 2008, let alone November 2006, they have to get Iraq behind them. They have to show progress or provide some credible strategy for victory that is not simply more of the gruelling same. Bush doesn’t have one.

The to-hell-with-them hawks do. And they’re gaining traction. Before too long a compliant US-backed dictator may not seem like such a bad option in Mesopotamia. And I feel Rumsfeld will be telling himself he knew it all along.

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