WASHINGTON - While Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's continued tenure in office has been the subject of a surge of speculation over the past week, it may be George W. Bush's continued reign -- at least over Iraq policy -- that appears most endangered at the moment.
While no one is talking about a classic "coup d'etat" against the U.S. president, as is being rumoured about the increasingly hapless and seemingly helpless Maliki in Baghdad, Bush's mantra about "staying the course" in Iraq is now seen as so delusory as to require some form of serious adult intervention.
"Plan B" -- that is, anything but "staying the course" -- has been on the lips of virtually every foreign policy analyst who considers him or herself worthy of the name this past week when, it seemed, the entire capital appeared to decide that whatever the U.S. has been doing in Iraq for the past three months, six months, or three years is failing, and failing spectacularly.
The sombre tone of this week's military briefings in Iraq certainly reflected that view as active-duty senior officers who finally went public with their growing frustrations.
Indeed, the fact that the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen. Peter Pace, earlier this month launched a comprehensive, 60-day review of Iraq strategy belied Bush's notion that the current strategy is fundamentally sound.
Even a few of the war's most enthusiastic neo-conservative supporters have come to admit that it may in fact have been a serious strategic mistake, although they seem determined still to stave off the growing consensus -- even among Republican circles -- in favour of some kind of timetable for withdrawal.
"The Iraq war was a mistake," wrote hard-line war hawk Jonah Goldberg in the Los Angeles Times Thursday, suggesting that Iraqis hold a special plebiscite on whether they want the U.S. to withdraw from their country.
"That the Iraq war is, if not a failure, failing, requires little demonstration," conceded Eliot Cohen, a member of the Pentagon's Defence Policy Board (DPB), in a column entitled "Plan B" published in the Wall Street Journal Friday.
Cohen, whose 2002 book, "Supreme Command", about how the West's greatest civilian wartime leaders constantly ignored or overruled their military commanders received widespread publicity when Bush took it on vacation with him several months before the Iraq invasion, argued that the loss in "American prestige" resulting from the Iraq adventure is such that it "will not be restored without a considerable and successful use of American military power down the road."
Not only have some 16,000 U.S. troops detailed to keep the peace in Baghdad failed to stop sectarian bloodletting the capital itself, but they have also shown themselves less able to protect themselves from increasingly potent and sophisticated insurgent and militia attacks.
At some 75 military deaths so far, October is well on the way to becoming one of the deadliest months for U.S. forces since the invasion more than three years ago. And the sacrifice implied by those deaths is increasingly under question here -- both among the public at large and the elite -- given the growing unanimity among experts, many of whom still resisted the proposition as recently as last month, that Iraq has reached a state of civil war.
"Almost all the indicators in Iraq point south, and America may already have passed the make-or-break point in its intervention there," noted an article in the well-respected National Journal published Friday entitled "Endgame".
The gloom -- not to say growing desperation -- regarding the situation in Iraq is, of course, compounded not only by the relentless daily media reports cataloguing yet more violence in Iraq, and the Maliki government's failure or inability to do anything about it, but also by the sense that the man at the top here, George W. Bush, either doesn't understand how bad the situation has become or is so stubborn and lacking in self-confidence that he wouldn't admit it if he did.
In his latest book, aptly titled "State of Denial", Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward recounted a White House meeting late last year with Republican lawmakers during which Bush, a football cheerleader during his university years, tried to quell any doubts about his determination to prevail in Iraq. "I will not withdraw even if (First Lady) Laura and Barney are the only ones supporting me," he told them. Barney is his dog.
That declaration may have sounded vaguely Churchillian and inspiring to his audience back then. But, given the blindingly obvious deterioration of the situation in Iraq -- and the growing conviction among political pros here that the Republicans will lose up to 40 seats and their control of the House of Representatives and may even lose their majority in the Senate in the Nov. 7 mid-term elections -- it is likely to sound stupid, even suicidal, to the same audience today.
Hence the sudden rise in talk not just about a coup d'etat in Baghdad that could somehow produce a new political leadership capable of pacifying the country -- either through appeasement or ruthless repression (either of the Sunni insurgency or of the Shia militias) -- but about effective "regime change" at home, as well.
Of course, a Democratic sweep in Congress could produce a new political context here. Indeed, a growing number of analysts believe that major Republican losses will result at the very least in the long-awaited departure of Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld.
But, by itself, Rumsfeld's departure guarantees nothing in terms of a change of strategy, and, given the Democrats' own disunity on Iraq and their relative spinelessness until recently in challenging the basic premises -- as opposed to competence -- of Bush's foreign policy since 9/11, a number of foreign policy heavyweights, most of them Republican "realists", are suggesting some serious "adult supervision" of the president after the elections, whether he likes it or not.
Indeed, none other than Harlan Ullman, a defence expert who coined the idea of "shock and awe" in military strategy, noted in his column in the Washington Times last week that Bush's stubbornness represented a real obstacle to sensible policies not just in Iraq, but in East Asia, where North Korea's recent nuclear test has been seen as yet another major Bush failure, and elsewhere.
"Since Mr. Bush is so adamant in his views, perhaps a 'council of elders' could persuade him to reconsider," wrote Ullman, who suggested that Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John Warner, former secretaries of state George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Democratic national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski could be involved in a concerted effort to "convince the president to appreciate the possibility that many of our policies are failing or founding and, unless we take new directions, events in East Asia could follow the disastrous trajectory of what is happening in the greater Middle East."
Such a group, he suggested, should also include former secretary of state James Baker, who now heads the bipartisan, Congressionally-created Iraq Study Group (ISG) -- the fast-growing focus of dwindling hope for a miracle cure for Iraq -- and has, like Warner, already made clear that "staying the course" is not a viable option.
That has also become the refrain of a rapidly growing number of panicked Republican incumbents who are ostentatiously distancing themselves from the Bush mantra in hopes of extending their political life expectancy.
© Copyright 2006 IPS - Inter Press Service