Bush's Iraq Strategy More Blood, More Money, More Doubts

130,000 US soldiers haven’t been able to bring peace to Iraq. Now George W. Bush has admitted his error -- and is sending in a further 21,000 troops. The US President is thus almost completely ignoring the recommendations of the Baker Commission.
Von Georg Mascolo

There were only a few hours to go until George W. Bush's speech to his war-weary nation when surprising help came to the beleaguered president from Baghdad. Tariq al-Hashimi, the vice president of Iraq, appealed to the Americans not to give up on his country, saying "not all bridges of patriotism have been burned."

Al-Hashimi drew hope from the performance of the Iraqi national football team; during the Asia Games in Qatar, the nation had supported the team together, with Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds united. Even if, as the vice president himself admitted, it was "only for a few hours."

In reality the bloody civil war continued even during half-time. And since it doesn't seem possible that the situation could become any more dismal, Bush didn’t attempt to gloss things over when he gave his speech in the White House Library  at 9 p.m. Wednesday local time.

Bush spoke of a "young democracy that is fighting for its life," of a situation that is "unacceptable" and of the urgent need "to change our strategy." Twenty minutes of candour from a seemingly exhausted president.

More blood, more money -- that was Bush's message. An extra 21,000 soldiers are to be sent to bring the situation in Baghdad and in Anbar province, a Sunni stronghold, under control. Bush named his strategy "The New Way Forward" -- but it seems suspiciously similar to all the previous failed attempts to stabilize Iraq.

The White House blamed the failure of earlier efforts on the fact that the US troops have always retreated after military engagements. Now the GIs are to stay on after the clean-up operations. A US battalion will be assigned to each city district in order to prevent a renewed flare-up of fighting. US aid money will be provided to stimulate the local economy -- high unemployment and widespread poverty are seen as creating the ideal breeding ground for radicals.

Bush wants to create a little peace through the use of force, and has to hope that the Iraqi politicians begin to finally show an interest in their much-vaunted commitment to national unity. Then, according to the Bush plan, the oil wealth can be fairly distributed, the militants disarmed, and the neighboring Arab states can be encouraged to provide generous reconstruction aid.

The president seemed to be unusually defensive in front of the camera, and he admitted even more clearly in confidential talks with congressional leaders how close his war had brought America and the Middle East to catastrophe. Bush is no longer talking about victory and democracy for the entire region. Instead he is talking about looming instability in Egypt, about Saudi Arabia's intervention on the side of the Sunnis, and the unstoppable rise of the regional power Iran. Bush's only remaining justification for remaining in the region is that of preventing an even larger disaster.

America's army will ultimately become a buffer between the groups fighting in the civil war. A brigade from the 82nd Airborne Division is to be deployed in Baghdad next week, and others will be sent in as soon as possible. While greater security may not automatically be the result, one thing is guaranteed predicts former NATO commander Wesley Clark: higher casualties.

The current generals are just as skeptical as the former generals about Bush's strategy. Bush has always pledged that he would only strengthen troop numbers in Iraq if his commanders on the ground asked for it. But now, he is countermanding the express will of those commanders -- and is replacing them for that reason. The war in Iraq has become Bush's war once and for all.

The view which has become widely established in the Pentagon in the meantime is that Iraq has to finally start to solve its problems by itself. In other words, the country needs more reliable Iraqi units, not more GIs. Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Malaki has promised the US president thousands of soldiers and complete freedom of movement, even in Shiite districts, for the new initiative. The idea is to allow the US army to finally act against the gruesome death squads of the radical cleric Muktada al-Sadr.

The promise, so proudly presented in Bush's spech, leaves most of the military unimpressed. Too often in the past, Malaki has not come through on such assurances they complain. And his political survival as head of government still depends on the 30 parliamentary votes of the Sadr block. Bush, too, appears to have developed his own doubts about Malaki's reliability. He has warned Malaki more clearly than ever that the US's patience is not unlimited. "Now is the time to act," he urged Malaki in his speech.

Bush has now almost completely turned away from the ideas of the non-partisan Baker-Hamilton Commission. In particular, the idea of talking with arch-enemies Syria and Iran never appealed to him. When the report was presented in December, Bush looked like he had just received a box full of stinking fish, as the magazineTime put it.

Instead of the recommended diplomatic offensive directed at the two arch-enemies, Bush has sharpened his tone again and made the mullahs responsible for the deaths of American soldiers. According to the president, Tehran is supplying weapons to the Shiite militia.

The Democratic opposition claim triumphantly that voters are being turned off and the Republicans are terrified of the next election. Whatever is still left of Bush's presidency is now at stake.

Even the White House appears to sense that its remaining political power is only enough for one last push. With Bush's speech, the argument on the home front about the Iraq war has flared up. But no matter how skeptical the Democrats -- and even many Republicans -- are, they won't stop Bush. He will put the plan into practice, if for no other reason than because nobody has a better one.

The Democrats want to have a symbolic vote on the resolution  in the coming weeks. A large majority against it seems possible. Anti-war groups are calling for the war to be "micro-managed." In Vietnam, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo, Congress only allowed the president to use military force under certain conditions, they argue. And Nancy Pelosi, the new speaker of the House, has now fueled the speculations: She is responsible for the idea that it could be possible to finance the war further, but to deny funds for troop reinforcements.

None of these strategies is very probable. The Democrats are just as divided over how to proceed over Iraq as Bush's own party. Only one interest unites them: Until the presidential elections in 2008, it has to remain Bush's war.

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