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Bush's 'surge' leaves critics hopeful

COMMENTARY | January 16, 2007

It’s not that many writers feel more U.S. troops will curb violence in Iraq but rather that they see the step as a sign that the American occupation of Iraq is in its last throes.

By John Burke

MADRIDOnce again, George Bush has managed to defy overwhelmingly popular global opinion.

Last week’s announcement of a ‘surge’ in American soldiers dedicated to stabilizing Baghdad was not so much met with disbelief by the international press; most have become accustomed to decisions that constantly disappoint.

Rather, there was a certain air of hope in some foreign editorials; they deem that Bush may have exhausted his options if not his entire political power. Since the Iraqi insurgency is definitely not in its “last throes,” the international press is seemingly hoping that what may be in its “last throes” is what is widely seen as the illegal occupancy of a once sovereign nation by a small invading, imperialist group.

Almost no foreign columnists believe that 21,500 additional troops will curb violence in the Iraqi capital, reckoning that it will only increase. What will also increase as a result, they anticipate, are calls for a political and hopefully peaceful solution to a bungled war:

A columnist for Saudi-based Arab News says that there is “no change of strategy,” calling Bush stubborn for not admitting his loss in Iraq and sending more American troops into its perilous capital:

“Repeat after me: There is no new U.S. strategy in Iraq. The allies are the same, the enemies are the same, the tactics are the same, even the new American force strength lies within the range that has prevailed since 2003. We are only being told that there is a new strategy because President George W. Bush had to say that he was doing SOMETHING differently after the Republicans’ stunning defeat in the mid-term Congressional elections two months ago.

“America’s allies in Iraq have not changed…

“The list of America’s enemies in Iraq has not changed either:..

“For the first time, opinion polls now show that a majority of Shiites also favor attacks on U.S. forces…

“But now the option of major escalation does not even exist, for the U.S. Army is only half the size it was in the 1960s and Bush lacks the political strength to bring back the draft…

“So what will be different in Iraq over the next six to twelve months? American casualties will be sharply up, because there will be more U.S. troops on the streets trying to take Baghdad back from the militias, and especially from the Mehdi Army.

“What’s certain is that nothing positive will happen until American troops are irrevocably on the way out of Iraq, leaving no ‘enduring bases’ behind. Nothing positive may happen then either, of course: The old Iraq has been destroyed by four years of foreign occupation, and nobody knows what the new one will look like, nor even where its borders will be. But first the occupation must end — and that will not happen one minute before President Bush leaves office in January 2008.

“This ‘new strategy’ that isn’t new is not about Iraq, nor American interests either. It is a public relations gesture by a proud man who understandably refuses to admit that the centerpiece of his presidency was a ghastly mistake from the start, and one that he cannot now fix.

“President Bush is not really playing ‘double or nothing’ in Iraq, as so many critics allege, because he cannot: He lacks the ground troops to double his bet. He doesn’t lack air power, however, and where he might be tempted to play ‘double or nothing’ is Iran. Let us hope not.

Another Arab News editorial that demands Bush “explain his Iraq strategy better.”

“At first glance, the new plan announced by President George W. Bush for Iraq, may appear as a move to achieve several political and military objectives.

“One of those objectives, in my opinion the most important, is to deal with the opponents of war, who now have a theoretical control of both houses of the Congress in the United States.

“By offering what is presented as a plan for victory, the president is putting the Democrat hawks in a complicated position…

“The worst-case scenario in Iraq would be for the U.S. to leave before the new Iraq can defend itself against internal foes and predatory neighbors. That could open the way for intervention by the Islamic Republic in Tehran that, in turn, would suck at least some of the Arab countries into the Iraqi imbroglio.

“Thus, the Democrats would be blamed for having snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and creating an even more tragic situation. Since giving up the position of the major power in the region could be the end of the United States’ ‘superpower’ status, the Americans would have to return to Iraq and fight an even bigger war.

“Logically, the Democrats should have no interest in seeing the U.S. fail in Iraq, although their desire to see Bush meet his comeuppance may be overwhelming. The Democrats hope to capture the White House in 2008. Therefore, it should be in their interest to see the situation in Iraq stabilized before then.

“Logic, however, is not always the best measure of how American politicians behave… Some American politicians are convinced that their country is so big and powerful as to not be harmed by setbacks they might inflict on it in the interest of their party or their individual careers.

“The key reason for continued violence in Iraq lies in Washington…

“The key task that Bush faces is to de-partisanize the Iraq issue as much as possible. He tried to do that in his speech Wednesday by admitting that there had been mistakes, and taking personal responsibility. But was that enough? Not at all. The U.S. cannot win complete victory as long as a substantial segment of its elite do whatever they can to ensure failure in Iraq…

“The best that a bipartisan approach can achieve on this issue was the Baker-Hamilton report, an almost surrealistic exercise in absurdity…

“What is needed in Iraq is a nonpartisan policy. Bush should not use Iraq as a means of humiliating his Democrat opponents who, in turn, should stop trying to ensure failure in Iraq as a means of settling scores with Bush.

“The president should consult more widely and more sincerely with the Democrats, gradually convincing at least some of them that winning in Iraq and defeating the jihadis is good for all Americans…

“The president should assume the task of explainer-in-chief, telling the American people why it was important to go to Iraq and why it is vital for the U.S. and its Arab and European allies that new Iraq should succeed. Such explaining, however, should not be motivated by a desire to settle political scores with Democrats and other opponents of the war, regardless of their true motives.

“No one knows whether the new Bush plan will work or not. But that is not the issue. To win in Iraq, and in the broader Middle East, Bush, or whoever succeeds him at the White House, must first win in the battlefield of American politics.”

“Like a deluded compulsive gambler, Bush is fuelling a new cold war,” or so opines the Guardian. According to the daily, last week’s air strikes against Islamists in Somalia parallel the proxy wars of the Cold War era. But if Bush thinks with such actions combined with the surge in Iraq he can end his term on a victory, he is highly mistaken:

“Say what you like about George Bush, but no one can accuse him of following the crowd. When everyone from the American electorate to the U.S. military brass, along with a rare consensus of world opinion, cries out with one voice to say ‘enough’ of the war in Iraq, Bush heads in the opposite direction - and decides to escalate. When his army chiefs complain of desperate overstretch in the war on terror, he takes that as his cue to open up another front. And that's just this week…

“Not that we should mock. At first blush, the Somalia raid (or raids) looks like just the kind of action that a global war on terror should entail, had it not been diverted by the unrelated nonsense about WMD and Iraq. After all, the Americans say they aimed their fire on Sunday at al-Qaida bigwigs, thought to be responsible for the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Zapping bad guys like them is exactly what the war on terror was supposed to be about.

“But Sunday's operation carried serious risks…

“According to Patrick Smith, the editor of Africa Confidential, the war on terror is fast becoming a cold war for the 21st century, with the U.S.finding proxy allies to fight proxy enemies in faraway places.

“Of course, Bush himself doesn't see it that way. He doubtless hoped that a neat, self-contained air strike in Africa could remind Americans of the bit of the war on terror they like - hunting down the baddies - just before they hear some news they don't…

“His people are calling it a surge. Anyone on nodding terms with the English language would call it escalation.

“It's a neat twist on democratic accountability. In last November's midterm elections, Americans sent a message as clearly as they could, short of hiring a plane to spell it out in skywriting above Pennsylvania Avenue: we want this war to end. Bush promised he had heard them - and is promptly doing the very opposite….

“Bush's showing of his middle finger feels more brazen, if only because it is not only the American public he is ignoring, but people you would think he might respect (the Iraq Study Group, especially James Baker).

“So now we know what the much-vaunted new Bush strategy for Iraq amounts to: throw more gasoline on the fire. It's conceivable that Bush is, in fact, planning an eventual withdrawal, but hoping that one last push will give him something he can call victory as a finale. Psychologists spot similar behaviour in compulsive gamblers who, when in trouble, increase their bets, hoping for a win that will allow them to leave the table with dignity. They have a word for such thinking: delusional.”

Before the surge was officially announced, Malaysia’s Star also invoked the gambling image of Bush but considers his decision to send more troops “too little, too late”:

“THERE are two main ways to arrest a deteriorating situation: cut your losses, or persist with more of the same in the hope that ‘bad luck’ will soon turn a corner.  

“The U.S. occupation of Iraq has gone so wrong that, fearful of the ‘defeat’ label, Washington has fallen back on the gambler’s folly of persisting…

“Among the weaknesses in Bush’s persistence is a lack of clarity of the mission, uncertainty over what can be done militarily that has not been done before, and the very notion that the war is still winnable. Without clear and convincing answers, there will be neither effective surge nor any surge. 

“In the early stages of the occupation, the clamour for more troops was quelled by then Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was obsessed with a ‘lean’ military style. In a post-Rumsfeld 2007 and a more volatile Iraq, assigning more troops looks sadly like too little, too late. 

“Bush critics typically cite the need for a political rather than a military solution. Bush’s response has, also typically, been military rather than political. A thorough reality check is therefore in order.” 

The French daily Le Monde (in French) calls the surge Bush’s “Last Chance”, noting that in the face of an adversarial Congress, Bush’s only political option was to “stay the course:”

“The tone has changed. But those who were waiting for the American President to change his policies or show that he has learned a lesson from the Democratic victory in Congress and the chaotic situation prevailing in Iraq were disappointed. The "new strategy" announced by George W. Bush on January 10th is simply a variation of those carried out since the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003, all of which have failed.

“Could Bush have gone further? If we take into account the convictions which pushed him into this inescapable corner, and the catastrophic consequences that a hasty withdrawal of U.S. forces would entail (as does, paradoxically, their continued presence), a complete change in policy was difficult to imagine. The new domestic political situation in the United States is more likely to lead toward further intransigence. He can't give the impression of yielding to his Democratic adversaries - who are themselves divided on the question - without putting himself at the mercy of a hostile Congress, thus compromising his last two years in the White House.

“If this last-chance strategy pays off, Mr. Bush will secure his place in history as the one who stood firm in the, "Global War Against Terrorism." If it ends up lengthening his list of aborted plans, he will quite simply pass the Iraqi burden on to his successor.”

Brazil’s Diario de Noticias puts faith in the popular opinion of the American public concerning what should be done in Iraq, and chides Bush for going against its wishes:

“The North American president has just announced that he will send "more than 20,000 soldiers" to Iraq, but anyone that believes this quick fix will stop the civil war are just fooling themselves…

“And even if (Bush) admits to mistakes being his responsibility, the truth is, this does nothing to lessen the consequences of the current state of affairs. Despite the unsustainable gravity of the situation in Iraq, Bush's speech seemed like an infantile act of faith amounting to the belief that if he repeats ‘it will work, it will work, it will work,’ that it actually will work. Identical plans didn't work before, but this time things will turn out differently. Is this because something essential has changed? No, it will work, we are told, because it will work…

“Not having pursued well-defined political objectives – in other words, goals whose insult carry consequences - along with a set of parallel diplomatic efforts - this new dispatch of North American troops to Iraq is in fact nothing more than an ‘escalation’ that could be counterproductive by increasing the complexity of the war.

“If it happens, this will make an American withdrawal even more traumatic and a peaceful future for Iraq and the entire region all the more distant.

“The majority of Americans already understood this long ago. Tragically, it is George W. Bush that still hasn't.”

Lebanon’s The Daily Star invokes the example of Roman emperor Diocletian who had imperial designs on Mesopotamia to better the lives of its people that failed to succeed. In the same vein, it asks, “The U.S. in Baghdad: surge or scourge?”

“The new strategy for Iraq announced by Bush on Wednesday night will continue to generate great debate for some time to come. We will soon see if his is a feasible, rational approach to the dilemmas that Washington has largely created for itself in the Middle East, or if it proves to be a new form of imperial self-assertion. It would only add to the already rich debate on this issue a cautionary note on imperial tendencies and dangers…

“George W. Bush speaks of Iraq and the Arab world in the language of imperial disdain, and acts with an exaggerated sense of divine proximity, emboldened by a fearlessness anchored in military might and certitude of the nobility of his mission. Yet he makes repeated mistakes - as he admitted this week while changing policy - and the consequences of his policy in the Middle East appear to bring about the opposite of his stated intentions: more terrorism, less stable states, the spread of Islamism, weaker central governments, and more intense anti-Americanism.

“This is a very unusual combination of confidence and confusion that we do not normally find, say, in domestic politics or local neighborhood relationships. This is the unique manifestation of the deadly allure of imperium - the sense that one has the absolute power to rule over distant, foreign lands and people who are considered vital for the well-being of one's nation or state. What Bush sees as a sensible surge seems to many in the Middle East as a more familiar scourge of imperial history.”  

In “Iraq is not just about America, or even mostly so” the Daily Star, a regional paper based in Beirut, considers that the United States has forgotten about the people of Iraq when making decisions about the war

“Much ink has been spilled and outrage revved up in arguing that the Bush administration has shamefully ignored the Iraq Study Group report released last December. But in a speech on Wednesday evening announcing a new strategy for Iraq, President George W. Bush took a major ISG recommendation to heart: the United States intends to set benchmarks for the Iraqi leadership to implement, otherwise...

“Otherwise what? Like the ISG authors, Bush didn't make the sharper side of that equation clear. He did warn that the Iraqi government ‘would lose the support of the American people,’ but on those grounds you would have to assume the United States entered Iraq merely as a favor to the Iraqis. Even the most idealistic war supporter would not make that argument. So, what leverage does the U.S. have over the Iraqis when the Iraqis are so essential to the success of the administration's plans, and its broader regional calculations? You do wonder.

“The absence of an answer points to a recurring flaw of U.S. policy in Iraq: American plans are chiefly designed to influence the mood on the home front, with relatively little allusion to Iraqi priorities - even if it has become a habit of late to underline that it's up to the Iraqis to ‘want victory.’ As far as Americans are concerned, Bush's main hurdle in Iraq is assuaging congressional Democrats, but very few people have a sense of what the aims of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki are or how they might end up undermining the president's ‘surge option.’

“In fact, this shortcoming was already obvious before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Then, the public debate in America was notable for the virtual absence of Iraqis. As intellectuals described their angst in justifying or opposing war, as pundits and journalists decorticated the bureaucratic machinations of the White House, the State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Pentagon, very few people in Washington seemed to be examining Iraqi society and asking how it might react to the arrival of well over 100,000 foreign soldiers. Even administration critics tended to discuss the war in parochial terms. Iraq was, and still is, largely about America…

“There are other factors as well that might spoil the administration's strategy, whether the likely military ineffectiveness of more than 20,000 new American soldiers or the absence of a political project to accompany U.S. endeavors. The fact that Bush has revamped the American political and military hierarchy in Iraq may be more a sign of weakness than strength. It does imply that new ideas will be floated, but it also means that those who have spent months or years in the field didn't get very far. Only when American officials and commanders can put their experience to use by better integrating Iraqi contradictions into their stabilization plans will success be more likely…

“Both Bush and his harshest critics need to make Americans better aware of Iraqi dynamics and the regional and international implications of any American decision. Iraq is not just about America, or is it even mostly so. It's time that straightforward truth becomes more widespread.”

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