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Bush's 'new way' leads backward

By R.K. Ramazani
The decision by President George Bush to add 21,500 U.S. troops to the 134,000 already on the ground in Iraq charts a way backward rather than a way forward. It promises to deepen the quagmire in which America finds itself. And it carries the enormous risk of widening the theater of war to the detriment of American interests in the Middle East.

The president made his decision in defiance of counsel from military experts and experienced field commanders. Just as in 2003, when he dismissed the warning of Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, the army chief of staff, that occupation forces at the time were too small, he recently ignored the view of Gen. John P. Abizaid, head of the Central Command, that troop increases were no answer in Iraq.

The president also flouted the advice of civilian experts, most notably, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Congressman Lee Hamilton. The study group’s report urged the Bush administration to set a goal of early 2008 for the withdrawal of almost all U.S. combat troops.

The Bush administration failed equally to heed the message of the mid-term congressional elections, a message heard loud and clear in the halls of the new Congress. The day after the president’s State of the Union address, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, by a vote of 12-8, repudiated his plan to send more troops to Baghdad.

Yet on the same day, Vice President Dick Cheney voiced the president’s defiant stance. He said: "We are moving ahead… . [T]he president has made his decision."

No war can succeed in the face of deepening frustration of the American public.

More than 60 percent of the people polled recently by World Public Opinion oppose the increased deployment of American forces, and tens of thousands took to the streets in Washington in late January to protest the president’s decision to increase troops in Iraq.

In effect, they were reminding legislators that the people had elected them and expected them to act as a check on the executive branch.

The burgeoning anti-war movement at home parallels the growing opposition around the world to the Bush administration’s new strategy. Sixty percent of the respondents in a World Public Opinion poll conducted in 33 countries believe that "the war in Iraq has increased the likelihood of terrorist attacks around the world." And 73 percent of the respondents in 25 countries polled oppose the troop increase. They think "the U.S. military presence in the region provokes more conflict than it prevents."

President Bush’s decision to deploy more troops to secure Baghdad and stabilize Iraq has been tested before and found wanting. But the prospects of failure loom larger this time. There is no recruitment of new troops. Soldiers are being redeployed - for the second, third and even fourth time. They do not complain in public, but their families increasingly do.

More consequentially, the president’s new strategy requires joint battlefield operations by Iraqi and American troops. The Iraqi government has failed previously to come up with the needed levels of Iraqi troops, clearly demonstrating its resentment of the American presence. Moreover, Prime Minister Nuri Kemal al-Maliki shared his unhappiness with the president’s security plan last November in Jordan; he remained silent after the president announced his troop surge decision in a televised speech on Jan. 10; and he offered only a grudging endorsement of the new strategy in the name of a common "vision" with America.

In Washington, doubts about al-Maliki’s willingness or ability to cooperate fully with the United States persists. Will he curb Shia militias, especially those loyal to the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, on whose support the al-Maliki government depends? Some members of the Bush administration are already discussing alternative leadership for the Iraqi government, possibly focusing on Adel Abdul Mahdi, deputy to the powerful cleric Abdul Aziz Hakim, who has ties to the White House.

And on the ground in Iraq, the joint American-Iraqi battlefield operations face formidable obstacles. One of the toughest problems is creating a clear and direct chain of command under chaotic battlefield conditions. Vastly different levels of competence between the American and Iraqi troops are compounded by difficulties in communication between the two sides because of differences in language and culture.

The intensification of the U.S. war in Iraq parallels the expansion of the U.S. conflict with Iran, an expansion contrary to the recommendation of the Study Group to engage Iran. American forces in Iraq arrested and released Iranian diplomats last December after protests by the Iraqi government. Despite objections by the Iraqi government, the U.S. military continues to hold five other Iranians after raiding their liaison office in Irbil. President Bush has authorized the American military to "kill or capture" Iranians suspected of fueling the sectarian war.

Besides provoking Iran, the American show of force - increasing U.S. sea and air power in the Persian Gulf and lining up six Sunni Gulf Arab states plus Egypt and Jordan against Shia Iran - risk widening the war in the Middle East.

Still, the Bush administration paints a rosy picture of its new Iraq strategy - just as it did of its old Iraq strategy. In his CNN interview Cheney said, "The bottom line is that we’ve had enormous successes and we will continue to have success."

Yet America now faces profound challenges. The challenges could be met if President Bush treated Congress with respect. If he recognized past mistakes in setting unachievable goals using inappropriate means. If he considered the lesson of the first Persian Gulf War, when the exclusion of Iran from the post-war regional security arrangement harmed long-term American interests in the region. And if he genuinely worked with Congress to find an honorable way out of the Iraqi morass and advance the national interests of the United States in the wider Middle East.

About the author:

R.K. Ramazani is Edward R. Stettinius Professor Emeritus of Government and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia. He has published extensively on the Middle East.

Note: This article was first published by Charlottesville Daily Progress on February 4, 2007 


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