US CANDIDATES FOR THE NOVEMBER 2008 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS ARE TAKING STOCK OF THE MASSIVE UNPOPULARITY OF THE IRAQ WAR. EVEN REPUBLICANS WOULD LIKE THE US OUT OF IRAQ. BUT THE CURRENT PRESIDENT, GEORGE BUSH, SEEMS NOT TO HEAR, NOR TO RULE OUT ANOTHER ADVENTURE IN IRAN.
President George Bush rejected the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group (ISG) on 10 January 2007, in favour of a study by a neoconservative thinktank, the American Enterprise Institute. Rather than the phased withdrawal recommended by the Baker-Hamilton report, he chose what was called a policy of "surge":
21,500 more soldiers would be sent to Iraq. But Congress is balking at this. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, said on CNN on 18 February that this military adventure was even worse than the Vietnam war, with its cycles of failure and escalation.
Just a few months ago, much was made of the apparent comeback of the realists (1). As Iraq was sliding into civil war, unilateralism and militarism seemed on the wane and the best-known neoconservatives, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, Lewis Libby and John Bolton, had left the political scene (2). The 7 November elections were a major setback for the White House: Democrats won a majority in the Senate and the House of Representatives, and Bush, acknowledging the thumping he had received, promised a "new way forward" in Iraq. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was replaced by Robert Gates, a former appointee of President George Bush Sr and also a member of the ISG. (This is the bipartisan committee, five Republicans and five Democrats, headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and Lee Hamilton, the former chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House of Representatives.)
The Baker-Hamilton report in December offered Bush an honourable exit strategy. It was called "The Way Forward: A New Approach" and made two sets of recommendations. The first, dealing with a responsible transition, recommended that combat troops leave Iraq by the first quarter of 2008 and that the United States not seek to keep permanent bases in Iraq. The second set focused on a new diplomatic offensive premised on a view, antithetical to the neoconservative vision, that there could be no military solution to the conflict. There was no mention of the need to spread democracy in the Middle East. The report called on the US to "engage its adversaries and enemies to try to resolve conflicts" by talking to Iran and Syria, and to renew serious efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict based on the land-for-peace principle.
'A flaming turd'
The Baker-Hamilton report was generally well received by the new Democratic majority as well as by a number of Republicans. Bush, in his official statements, said that it contained interesting elements, but he made it clear that he wanted to hear other viewpoints before he made up his mind. In private, he is said to have called the report "a flaming turd" (3). To understand why he chose escalation, one needs to go back to the political, religious and oedipal (4) sources of his presidency.
When asked a few years ago whether he had consulted his father before going to war against Iraq, Bush replied: "You know he is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher father that I appeal to." As in all dynasties, father-son relations are complicated. The son was especially keen to make a radical break in his foreign policy.
The elder Bush had a passion for foreign affairs. He was dismissive of what he called "the vision thing" and considered himself a realist and a pragmatist. His main presidential feat had been to dislodge Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991. His secretary of state, James Baker, had managed to assemble a coalition of 34 countries, some of them Arab, to secure a US mandate, and to arrange for US allies to foot the bill (5).
In contrast, the younger Bush had no foreign policy experience when he became president. He did inherit an impressive group of foreign policy advisers, among them Condoleezza Rice, who became his principal tutor (6). There were also other influences. As governor of Texas he visited Israel in 1998 and learned about military strategy from the then foreign minister, Ariel Sharon, who explained why a policy of peace through strength was preferable to one of land for peace. Bush still retained many zones of ignorance in his understanding of international affairs. Ambassador Peter Galbraith revealed that in January 2003, two months before the invasion of Iraq, Bush had not yet heard of the Sunni-Shia divide within Islam (7).
'Rid the world of evil'
Less than nine months after becoming president, Bush jettisoned his campaign promise to conduct a "humble" foreign policy. During a service on 14 September 2001 in Washington's National Cathedral, on the day of prayer and remembrance after the World Trade Centre attacks, he announced his intent to "rid the world of evil". Many accounts claim that the born-again president saw his presence in the White House as a sign of divine providence. The religious, moral and metaphysical dimensions transformed the political debate, which became increasingly removed not only from classical realism but even from empirical reality.
As a senior adviser to Bush (assumed to be the political strategist Karl Rove) put it to journalist Ron Suskind: ''That's not the way the world really works anymore. We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality" (8). The 9/11 attacks came to be seen as proof of the failure of previous policies. A unilateralist approach based on prevention was the basis of new policies. The invasion of Iraq was deemed necessary to reform the Arab and Islamic worlds and redraw the map of the Middle East. As the medievalist Bernard Lewis, the most influential thinker in policy circles, kept repeating: "The Arabs only understand the language of force" (9).
Based on these premises, the most influential thinktanks and pundits devised policies rooted in fantasy. The general public, eager for miracle solutions, believed their chain of reasoning: the war would be a piece of cake; US troops would be welcomed as liberators; a liberal and secular democracy would emerge in Iraq; the Iraqi government would sign a peace treaty with Israel; through a domino effect, regime change would sweep the region; free elections would crush extremists; the Arab-Israeli conflict would be resolved (10). Bush clearly believes that this vision has only been delayed, hence the need to stay the course.
The neocons have heaped flattery on the president, portraying him as a Churchill-like character, invested with a historical, if not Messianic, mission (11). The surge they now advocate will probably have disastrous effects, but it provides an intellectual justification for Bush's obstinacy. He had said that US troops would stay in Iraq even "if Laura and Barney [his wife and his dog] are the only ones who support me" (12). His tone today is often more conciliatory. He has repeatedly asked "to give the plan a chance to succeed" and has said that sending more soldiers would pacify Baghdad and buy the time needed to achieve national reconciliation.
The surge also had the political advantage of allowing the president to seize the initiative. Faced with a Democratic Congress, hostile public opinion and sceptical military, Bush, who feared above all becoming irrelevant, kept repeating "I am the decider". Since 11 October 2002, as commander-in-chief of the army, he has had free rein: Congress (vested with the constitutional authority to declare war) had authorised him to use force to "defend the national security of the US against the continuing threat posed by Iraq".
Support was massive and unambiguous: the vote was 296 to 133 in the House and 73 to 23 in the Senate. This irreversible delegation of power is now embarrassing many. A majority of Democrats had supported the war (among them former presidential candidate John Kerry and presidential hopefuls John Edwards and Hillary Clinton).
But a comparable vote to authorise war against Iran would today be inconceivable, considering the opposition of Congress, public opinion and many military leaders. So Bush, by accusing Iran of causing the death of US soldiers through its help to insurgents, is signalling that he could go to war without the need for a new congressional vote: military strikes would be justified as self-defence.
The president's calculation was that the surge left Congress with no good choices: it could either register its opposition with a non-binding and thus inconsequential vote; or it could cut off funding to the troops, a highly unpopular measure akin to abandoning troops and endangering their lives.
On 16 February, the House of Representatives, by a vote of 246 to 182 after four days of debate, formally repudiated the surge while reaffirming its support to the armed forces, with 17 Republicans breaking ranks to join all but two Democrats in supporting the resolution. Next day 56 senators, including seven Republicans, against 34 declared their opposition to sending more troops to Iraq. However, the peculiar Senate rules required the approval of 60 senators for the resolution to be debated.
The battle between the legislative and executive branches of the government is far from over. This month Congress, which holds the power of the purse, will be examining Bush's request for an additional $93bn for the Iraq war. By forcing the Pentagon to adhere to strict training and readiness standards (by imposing a year's interval between tours of duty), Congress could be in a position to deny Bush the ability to proceed with the build-up and force him to do the unthinkable: start bringing the troops home, as the mission — central to his presidency and considered "accomplished" almost four years earlier — turns into a complete debacle.
(1) Mike Allen and Romesh Ratnesar, "The End of Cowboy Diplomacy", Time, 10 July 2006.
(2) The neocons are still present on the political scene. Elliott Abrams, the current deputy director of the National Security Council and the principal architect of Middle Eastern policy, is an influential neoconservative. The movement is also well represented on the staff of Vice-President Richard Cheney.
(3) Sidney Blumenthal, "Shuttle without diplomacy", Salon, 11 January 2007.
(4) See Justin Frank, Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President, Regan Books, New York, 2004.
(5) See James Baker with Thomas DeFrank, The Politics of Diplomacy: Revolution, War and Peace, 1989-1992, GP Putnam's Sons, New York, 1995.
(6) James Mann, Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet, Penguin Books, New York, 2004.
(7) Peter Galbraith, The End of Iraq, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2006.
(8) Ron Suskind, "Without a Doubt", New York Times Magazine, 17 October 2004.
(9) Bryan Burrough, Evgenia Peretz, David Rose, and David Wise, "The Path to War", Vanity Fair, May 2004. See also Alain Gresh, "Malevolent fantasy of Islam", Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, August 2005.
(10) DL O'Huallachain et J Forrest Sharpe, Neo-Conned: A Condemnation of War in Iraq, Lights in the Darkness Publications, Vienna, Virginia, 2005.
(11) See David Frum, The Right Man: An Inside Account of the Bush White House, Random House, New York, 2005.
(12) Bob Woodward, State of Denial: Bush at War, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2006. Tous Droits Réservés © Le Monde diplomatique.
Tous Droits Réservés © Le Monde diplomatique.