The hope that President Bush might move toward an American withdrawal from Iraq was decisively rejected in his important speech of January 10. This was the first response by the American president to the November electoral mandate that was, above all, an unmistakable rejection of the Iraq policy by the voting public. It was also the first formal response to the report of the high-profile Iraq Study Group headed by former Secretary of State, James Baker, and Democratic Congressional leader, Lee Hamilton, that had recommended a gradual American withdrawal, a robust regional diplomatic strategy designed to encourage help in stabilizing Iraq, and a renewed sense of urgency about seeking a solution for the Palestine-Israel conflict.
In all respects, rather than heeding these demands of his Iraq critics, or at least meeting them halfway, Bush proposed a set of initiatives that moved precisely in the opposite direction. Instead of withdrawal, Bush decreed a clear escalation of the American combat role, deploying an additional 21,500 American troops to be used in Baghdad and Anbar province, the two areas of most intense resistance to the American occupation of the country. Instead of initiating a regional diplomatic effort that invited the participation of Iran and Syria, the president clearly signaled his intention to confront these countries in a more hostile manner that is almost certain to further heighten regional tensions. This unfortunate prospect was given immediate tangible expression the day after the speech by a provocative American military raid on an Iranian diplomatic mission in the northern city of Arbil, situated in the Kurdish region. And to complete the discouraging picture, not a word was uttered about an increased effort to achieve peace between Israel and Palestine.
How should we interpret this defiant posture? Already this reaffirmation of the old Iraq policy by Bush has antagonized the Democratic opposition now in control of Congress, and has even disappointed and puzzled most Republicans. This Bush ‘stay the course’ stubbornness almost requires Congress to confront the president on Iraq. If Congress acts it would likely be seen as a challenge to Bush’s authority as commander-in-chief of the armed forces under wartime conditions, and could produce a paralyzing constitutional crisis, which might damage the political prospects of the Republican Party for years.
Part of the explanation of the approach adopted Bush involves a recognition of the extent to which the White House continues to be steered by neoconservative hard liners when it comes to foreign policy. Well ahead of the speech it was widely publicized that these new tactics of escalated deployment in Baghdad had been mainly crafted by Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, a hawkish signatory of the pre-9/11 neoconservative blueprint for American foreign policy published under the auspices of the Project for a New American Century. By relying on Kagan and AEI the Bush presidency reaffirmed its ideological identity, while at the same time repudiating the more pragmatic and realistic option offered by the Baker-Hamilton recommendations. If Bush had gone along with Baker-Hamilton, his leadership would almost certainly have received a dramatic spike of popular support from an American public clamoring for relief from a costly and failing war policy. To have so adjusted would have been applauded throughout the world as a brave effort to acknowledge failure and move in a more hopeful direction. But to do so would have meant renouncing the neoconservative agenda of exporting democracy to the Middle East and of refusing to engage diplomatically with ‘the bad guys’ in control of Iran and Syria. At this point, the Bush presidency remains locked in what increasingly appears to be a death embrace with the neoconservative ideologues. It was they who had advocated regime change in Iraq by military intervention ever since Bush was elected in 2000, if not earlier. It probably should come as no surprise that Bush has so clearly cast his lot with this band of neoconservative extremists, but it is still a disappointment that will make Iraq something worse than the tragedy it has already become.
Most of Bush’s argument on behalf of the approach he adopted was an elaboration of a single thought: “Failure in Iraq would be a disaster for the United States.” To avert failure Bush proposed new tactics involving a dramatic upgrading of the American combat presence in Baghdad, including a new willingness to clear and hold neighborhoods presently controlled by both Sunni and Shi’ia militias, including those of Muqtadar al-Sadr. Bush insisted that the success of such tactics depended on the willingness of the Iraqi government of Nuri al-Maliki to be fully committed to achieving such goals of pacification. Such dependence is almost a guaranty of the failure Bush is preoccupied with avoiding!
The available evidence clearly establishes that the goal of the Maliki leadership is to consolidate Shi’ia dominance, not to share power with its Sunni adversaries as is implicit in the Bush political strategy. Actually, Maliki had been actively pushing for an adjustment of the American role in Iraq that is diametrically opposed to both the Bush decisions and the Baker-Hamilton recommendations. Maliki was seeking the removal of the American military presence from Baghdad, with its combat mission being redefined as exclusively devoted to engaging and defeating the Sunni elements of the overall insurgency, which would leave the Shi’ia in uncontested control of Iraq. Of course, this makes political sense. Maliki owes his position of leadership to the support of the thirty members of the Iraqi parliament that belong to Muqtador al-Sadr’s political party. For Maliki to act against his own strongest constituency, except verbally to appease the American occupiers, would almost certainly lead to the immediate collapse of his government. In effect, then, Bush’s announced plan of stepped up joint pacification efforts in the Iraqi capital seems doomed before being attempted. More than this, to override Baghdad’s policy on internal security in this way is to make a mockery of the purported transfer of sovereignty to an elected Iraqi government, and to add credibility to the opponents of the Maliki regime who regard it as a puppet government.
The incoherence of what Bush proposes for a revised Iraq policy is pervasive. On the one side, as mentioned, Bush indicates that failure in Iraq spells disaster for the United States, but arguably in most respects ‘failure’ already exists. On the other side, Bush pins his vain hopes for success on cooperation with the Iraqi government on an approach that contradicts its own power base, and is almost certainly a non-starter. How can a radical Shi’ite leadership suddenly turn around and cooperate in the violent destruction of the most militant Shi’ia political formation with which it has been so closely allied. Think back only a few weeks to the execution of Saddam Hussein, whose hanging was presided over by Shi’ia extremists who were shrieking ‘Muqtador! Muqtador!’ even while the noose was tightened around the deposed dicatator’s neck. This grisley microcosm of the political realities in Iraq should by itself have shown how futile it is to enlist the Maliki government in an effort to crush the Shi’ia militia presence in Baghdad. Maliki is himself a Shi’ia militant, not a captive to forces that he wishes, but is presently unable, to control.
In the end, what may be most scary, is the double likelihood of continued frustration of the American effort in Iraq combined with growing tensions in the region. In such a setting one cannot ignore the Israeli resolve to confront Iran by military means, possibly on its own, but preferably, more indirectly, by exerting pressure on the United States to do so. There have even been several media reports that Israel has prepared an attack scenario that features the use of bunker buster nuclear bombs against Iranian targets associated with their nuclear program. Such war plans, even if only hypothetical, involve the first time since Hiroshima and Nagasaki that a government seems to be seriously contemplating the use of nuclear weapons as an instrument of its foreign policy. If anything is likely to hasten the collapse of the nonproliferation regime, already tottering, it is such a reckless wielding of nuclear weapons for purposes other than self-defense and deterrence.
Although American military resources are spread thin, such an expansion of the war zone has some attractive features from the perspective of the neoconservative planners who continue to hold sway in Washington. In one respect, Rumsfeld’s ghost may be a player in this new phase of Middle Eastern diplomacy. The most notorious of the so-called ‘Rumsfeld rules’ fits the present situation—‘if a problem seems insoluble, make it bigger.’ Extending the war zone to Iran and Syria would make the challenge bigger, and divert attention from a deteriorating situation in Iraq. What is more, with Israel strongly behind such an expansion, the Democrats in America might find themselves badly divided and politically confused. And from the perspective of neoconservative priorities, Iraq was always regarded as a prelude to the main goal, which was to achieve regime change in Tehran and Damascus. This kind of objective seems less outlandish as a result of the apocalyptic language used by Mahmoud Ahmedinejad with respect to Israel. As new setbacks in Iraq capture media headlines, the Bush leadership would have to choose between a final admission of humiliating defeat, which it has repeatedly defined as an unacceptable American disaster, or embarking on a regional war, which will end up being a much worse American disaster, but probably not immediately. It may gain the Bush time he desperately needs to end his term in office, and manage to slink back to civilian life on his Crawford ranch before the sky falls.
We can only hope that prudence intrudes to stop this gathering momentum that is propelling the region toward a calamitous culmination of the neoconservative crusade. It is not a time for American friends in the region and Europe to be silent. It is a great opportunity for Ankara to show that it is an independent actor in the Middle East that has a strategic stake in the conflict, but that also has a constructive view of peace and security for the region.
Richard Falk is professor emeritus of international law and practice at Princeton University, and visiting distinguished professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.