What is President George W. Bush's strategy in Iraq? This is a question that even many of the experts are puzzling over as the war has entered its fifth year, the violence in Iraq escalates, and there is no end in sight. Even the White House's domestic political strategy seems unclear, since according to exit polls, Iraq was one of the most important political issues the led his party to lose both houses of Congress in November.
Indeed, much of the political commentary here has focused on the Administration's defiance of the electorate. After acknowledging that he and his party took "a thumping" on November 7, President Bush has responded by escalating the war, deciding to send an additional 20,000 troops to Baghdad.
It is impossible to tell what the President and his advisers are thinking, and there is enormous uncertainty with regard to the Bush Administration's intentions regarding Iran (see below). Nonetheless some observations can be made.
First, President Bush may see himself in the position of a gambler who has already lost his house and is now betting the boat. To leave Iraq now would be to admit defeat in a war that has come to define his presidency. American presidents have been loathe to quit a war even when there is no hope of winning – some years ago, President Lyndon Johnson's tapes revealed that he had continued to wage the Vietnam War, and indeed the overwhelming majority of the United States' military deaths occurred, after he had already concluded that the war was lost. But it is not only the "the ego of a bully," as the influential New York Times' columnist Paul Krugman has described President Bush's reason for continuing the war, but also the self-perceived credibility of an empire that has 770 foreign military bases that is on the line.
The foreign policy establishment, which dominates the debate that takes place in the major media here, shares this fear of the US losing such credibility even as it has turned against the war. Bush's gamble appears to be that if he can succeed in even temporarily reducing the level of sectarian violence in Iraq, the media will once again see the hope of "winning" and the politics on the home front will change. For example, when Iraqis went to the polls to vote in January 2005, purple fingers were everywhere and the media seized upon this "success," bringing the Bush administration a major public relations victory and a big boost for the war.
It's a long shot this time, with three-fifths of the public against the war and the Congress debating resolutions against the escalation, with one bi-partisan bill picking up steam in the Senate. But it is not impossible, and so the Administration might easily see this as their best chance if they are not to give up on establishing a state in Iraq that is compliant with their interests, and perhaps more importantly, avoiding a lost war.
Domestic politics play a major role in this drama. In 1987, when President Reagan was threatened by a major scandal resulting from a much less costly (for Americans) foreign adventure in Nicaragua, Republican party leaders went to him and explained that they did not want to lose the presidency in 1988 because of this recklessness. Among these leaders was longtime Bush family consigliere and former Secretary of State James Baker, who recently headed the bi-partisan, congressionally appointed Iraq Study Group. Reagan accepted a new Chief of Staff and the "Reagan revolution" was curtailed.
Twenty years later, Baker's Iraq Study Group offered President George W. Bush a way to extract himself from the Iraq mess with some chance of saving face, but Bush rejected it. This is not only because President Bush is more radical than Reagan, but also because the structure and base of the Republican Party has changed. There does not appear to be any group of "moderates" within the Republican Party, comparable to what existed 20 years ago, with enough political clout to convince the White House that they are seriously risking the political future of the Republican Party by clinging to this war. And they are: the vote for the last Congress was 55-45 percent Democratic, and if things continue along the present course, it could be more lopsided in 2008, and they could lose the presidency as well.
It is also worth noting that the major Republican presidential candidates – including the clear front-runner John McCain – are backing President Bush in his escalation of the war. They are playing for the dominant base of the party. Some of the Republican leaders, including the White House, are accusing critics of the war of undermining the troops and helping the insurgents. But this does not appear to be striking much of a chord outside of their own loyal base. The Republicans seem to be setting things up so that they can claim, when the war is lost, that the opposition was at fault. McCain and others have been daring their opponents to cut off funding for the war. They believe that this would make the Democrats vulnerable to charges of "betraying the troops." The media here helps the pro-war politicians in this regard by pretending as though Congress cutting off funding would actually put U.S. soldiers in danger, stranded in the desert without ammunition, when in fact this is false – there would be plenty of money in the pipeline for an orderly withdrawal. Given the Bush Administration's stubborn commitment to the war, it may not be possible to end it without a cut off of Congressional funds.
Iran: an "Exit Strategy?"
In recent weeks the Bush Administration has adopted an increasingly bellicose position towards Iran, accusing Iran of involvement in attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq, and conducting a raid on an Iranian consulate in northern Iraq. It has also authorized the U.S. military to attack Iranians within Iraq. In his January 10 speech, President Bush promised to "seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies," by which he meant Iran. Perhaps even more ominously, he has sent two aircraft carriers to the Persian Gulf "as a warning to Iran" and Patriot anti-missile batteries to allies in the region. His appointment of Navy Adm. William Fallon to oversee U.S. operations in the Middle East has also been cited by analysts who believe that the Bush Administration is preparing for an air strike against Iran.
There is no doubt that preparations for a military attack against Iran are being made, and that the Administration is taking actions that increase the likelihood of a military confrontation and/or Gulf-of-Tonkin-like incident that would serve as pretext for such a war. The question is, would they do it?
A couple of years ago it would not have been so difficult to sell this war. The media has sufficiently demonized Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – with much help from him, for example by his sponsorship of a conference of Holocaust-deniers last December. But it is now well established that he never made the infamous remark about "wiping Israel off the map," which is repeated endlessly in the press and will serve as a major justification for this next war, should it occur.
The proposed rationale for such a "pre-emptive" strike is that Iran is heading toward the capacity to make a nuclear bomb and that it would use such a weapon in a genocidal attack against Israel, or perhaps give it to terrorists to use against the United States. Most Americans have already been convinced of this, despite the fact that both Israel and the United States have the nuclear capacity to obliterate Iran if it were ever to use such a weapon, and the Iranian leadership shows no indication that it seeks mass suicide for the country. So the case for war has already been made. And it would most likely be an air strike without ground troops, which is generally not so much a political problem at home.
The main obstacle preventing President Bush from attacking Iran is that he has lost so much credibility. The November election was a political earthquake that took the ground from under his feet. The similarity to the run-up to the Iraq war, with non-existent weapons of mass destruction and fictional ties between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda, is too great for even much of the major media to swallow. There have been some press reports that follow the same pattern as the pre-Iraq-war journalistic fiasco – e.g. a New York Times article last week headlined "Iran May Have Trained Attackers That Killed 5 American Soldiers, U.S. and Iraqis Say" provided no named sources and no evidence for the inflammatory allegations.
But with Iran years away from the capability to build a nuclear bomb, the public remains skeptical, and that skepticism is also reflected in significant media and political circles. Nonetheless the Bush Administration can be expected to pursue confrontation and increase tension with Iran, in the hope that circumstances will change sufficiently to make an attack on Iran politically feasible. A number of analysts have suggested that Israel might carry out the initial attack, which might make it easier for the Bush Administration on the domestic front, with Washington justifying its participation in such a war as a defense of its ally.
The Role of Europe
Europe has an important role to play in determining whether the Bush Administration will launch an attack on Iran. President Bush refuses to consider negotiation, and he has already gotten the UN Security Council to impose sanctions against Iran (in December). Since he is seeking to escalate a confrontation, negotiations would be a big step backward.
Negotiations could create the wrong dynamic for the Bush team. When the last round of negotiations were taking place between European countries and Iran over Iran's nuclear program, it became clear that Germany was willing to consider compromises that would allow Iran to enrich uranium under strict UN inspections. The Bush team did not want to allow this, even to allow discussion of it, since the real position of the Bush Administration is that Iran cannot enrich uranium on its own soil ever under its current government under any circumstances -- even though Iran is guaranteed this right by international treaty.
The Bush administration has bullied Europe into accepting its strategy of seeking confrontation leading to military action against Iran. The White House has often threatened Europe that if it does not concede to US demands, the multilateral process will cease. Europe has to resist this type of blackmail, and insist on negotiations with Iran to resolve the dispute over its nuclear program. If it does not, we may continue to draw closer to another deadly and destructive war in the Middle East.
Mark Weisbrot is Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (www.cepr.net), in Washington D.C. Robert Naiman is Senior Policy Analyst and National Coordinator of Just Foreign Policy (www.justforeignpolicy.org )