The Washington pundits and the press are all atwitter wondering how successful George W. Bushâ€™s Iraq â€œsurgeâ€ strategy will be and how fast the Democrats will crumble in a showdown with the steely-eyed President over his demand for $100 billion more for the war with no strings attached.
But the underlying military reality is that the United States has long since â€œlostâ€ the war in Iraq. As many military and intelligence analysts recognize, it is not winnable in any normal sense of the word. The â€œsurgeâ€ of sending tens of thousands more U.S. troops into Iraq only guarantees that the final body count will be higher and the piles of IOUs bigger.
To get a sense of the inevitable disaster ahead, just envision the conditions for U.S. troops stuck in police stations around Baghdad when the summer temperatures rise to over 100 degrees and tempers turn just as hot. By then, too, Iraqi insurgents will have adjusted their tactics to take advantage of isolated American soldiers.
The U.S. death toll in and around Baghdad is already increasing though the â€œsurgeâ€ is only partially complete. In the months ahead, as more U.S. troops are exposed in less protected positions, the likelihood is that the casualty rates will grow only worse.
As The New York Times reported on April 9, â€œFor American troops, Baghdad has become a deadlier battleground as they have poured into the capital to confront Sunni and Shiite militias on their home streets. The rate of American deaths in the city over the first seven weeks of the security plan has nearly doubled from the previous period.â€
But the basic reason that Bushâ€™s â€œsurgeâ€ plan is doomed to failure is that it never was a distinctly new military strategy. It was a repackaged version of â€œstay the courseâ€ slapped together in December and January when Bush was under pressure from the bipartisan Iraq Study Group and the newly elected Democratic congressional majorities.
The Iraq Study Group, headed by longtime Bush family counselor James Baker, called the situation in Iraq as â€œgrave and deterioratingâ€ and proposed a phased withdrawal of U.S. combat forces combined with more training of Iraqi troops and a diplomatic offensive to reduce tensions in the region.
Bush correctly read between the lines, interpreting the report as a repudiation of his open-ended war and a recommendation for a gradual disengagement. â€œThis business about graceful exit just simply has no realism to it whatsoever,â€ Bush fumed, vowing that U.S. forces would â€œstay in Iraq to get the job done.â€
Accepting the Iraq Study Groupâ€™s findings also would have meant admitting his failure as the â€œwar president,â€ which Bush would not do. So, he adopted a plan, favored by his neoconservative advisers, that was less a military strategy than a political device.
The â€œsurgeâ€ was a way to buy time for Bushâ€™s legacy – to palm off inevitable defeat on his successor – even at the cost of many more American and Iraqi lives. It was like the riff by Comedy Centralâ€™s Lewis Black about â€œkeeping false hope alive.â€ That has been Bushâ€™s pattern for the past four years.
At every key juncture of the Iraq War, Bush has pointed to a new mirage of expected success as the United States staggers deeper and deeper into the desert. First, there was the expectation of victory after Saddam Husseinâ€™s sons were killed and the dictator was captured. Later, there was the writing of a constitution and return of â€œsovereignty.â€
In fall 2004, as Bush needed to get past the U.S. elections, there was the promise of upcoming Iraqi elections that would mark another corner turned. If anything, the heralded elections only deepened the violent divisions between Shiites and Sunnis.
Turning-point after turning-point, conditions only got worse. Even Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reached the conclusion that the Iraq War was pretty much a lost cause, sending Bush a menu of options on Nov. 6, 2006, that focused on disengagement similar to ideas promoted by Democratic Rep. John Murtha.
Rumsfeldâ€™s options included â€œan accelerated drawdown of U.S. basesâ€ from 55 to five by July 2007 with remaining U.S. forces only committed to Iraqi areas that requested them. â€œUnless they [local Iraqi governments] cooperate fully, U.S. forces would leave their province,â€ Rumsfeld wrote.
The Defense Secretary suggested that the commanders â€œwithdraw U.S. forces from vulnerable positions – cities, patrolling, etc. – and move U.S. forces to a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) status, operating from within Iraq and Kuwait, to be available when Iraqi security forces need assistance.â€
And in what could be read as an implicit criticism of Bushâ€™s lofty rhetoric about transforming Iraq and the Middle East, Rumsfeld said the administration should â€œrecast the U.S. military mission and the U.S. goals (how we talk about them) – go minimalist.â€
Bushâ€™s reaction was to fire Rumsfeld two days after receiving this â€œgoing wobblyâ€ memo. Bush replaced the headstrong Rumsfeld with the accommodating Robert Gates.
As the New Year dawned, however, Bush understood that he needed to give the American people some reason to expect improvement in Iraq, even if the generals who had the most direct experience – John Abizaid and George Casey – were against the â€œsurge,â€ as were the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Bush needed to â€œkeep false hope aliveâ€ if he was to fend off anti-war legislation. So was born the â€œsurge,â€ less a new military strategy than a political tactic. The American people were pointed toward another mirage.
What is now underway in Washington is the playing out of a macabre fantasy.
The Republicans seek to sustain the fiction of progress. See, for instance, Sen. John McCainâ€™s â€œstrollâ€ through a Baghdad market surrounded by 100 soldiers and protected by helicopter gun ships.
When the happy talk brings derision – as occurred with McCainâ€™s â€œstrollâ€ – Bushâ€™s backers turn to a reverse of â€œkeeping false hope alive.â€ They predict an apocalyptic future – al-Qaeda governing a â€œcaliphateâ€ from Spain to Indonesia – if U.S. troops leave Iraq. Yet the fear is no more realistic than the hope.
Democrats have their own fictions, other plans for success, albeit by setting benchmarks for the Iraqi government and gradually withdrawing U.S. combat forces, a kind of de facto recognition of the grim reality.
It remains easier for Washington politicians – and pundits – to maintain the pretense of future success in Iraq than to risk accusations that they are â€œdefeatistsâ€ or that they have lost faith in â€œthe troops.â€
Almost no one wants to tell the American people the hard truth: that the Iraq War has been one of the worst national security debacles in U.S. history; it is now beyond salvaging; probably the best that Washington can hope to do is to limit the damage by withdrawing its forces as expeditiously as possible and by starting to rebuild its diplomatic relations with nations in the region.
Yet, in the marble halls and the dinner parties of Washington, it makes more sense, career-wise, to â€œkeep an open mindâ€ about Bushâ€™s new strategy and to handicap the chances for the President prevailing over the Democrats in getting another Iraq War â€œblank check.â€
But Bushâ€™s â€œsurgeâ€ and Washingtonâ€™s political calculations make far less sense on the bloody streets of Baghdad or in the tear-filled homes of Gold Star mothers.
[For some of Robert Parryâ€™s earlier writings about the Iraq War, see Bay of Pigs Meets Black Hawk Down in March 2003; Sinking in Deeper in February 2005; and Bush/Cheney Still Lie with Abandon in April 2007.]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. Itâ€™s also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & â€˜Project Truth.â€™