One year after President George W Bush declared
the end of major combat in Iraq, the United States appears to be teetering on
the brink of strategic defeat in its Mesopotamian adventure.
Even as Bush on Friday reiterated his ambition to bring "freedom and
democracy" to Iraq and the Middle East, a series of recent policy reversals –
capped by Friday's
announcement that a former Ba'athist general will take charge of an all-Iraqi
security force in Fallujah – suggests that an increasingly desperate
Washington will settle for far less.
Indeed, over the past two weeks, the administration appears to have almost
entirely jettisoned the neo-conservative vision of an ardently pro-U.S. Iraq led
by Iraqi National Congress (INC) chief Ahmed Chalabi, opened wide to U.S. and
western capital, and eager to serve as a convenient base for destabilising
Syria, Iran and even Saudi Arabia if it gets out of line.
The defeat of the neo-conservatives, whose influence has been exercised
primarily through the offices of Vice President Dick Cheney and Defence
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, has been made abundantly clear by the mandate the
administration has given United Nations Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to
essentially handpick the leadership of the new Iraqi government that will gain
"limited sovereignty," as one State Department official put it this week, after
That the world body has been given such an important role severely undercuts
the maximalist objectives of the neo-cons and other right-wing unilateralists,
whose main aim in going to war in Iraq was to demonstrate that Washington did
not need the United Nations to "legitimate" its role as the ultimate guarantor
of global security.
Brahimi's apparent decision to exclude Chalabi, for whom he is said to have
the greatest contempt, drew strong protests from the INC leader's neo-con
supporters in the Pentagon and outside the administration, who were then further
infuriated by Brahimi's statements last week that current Israeli policies –
fervently backed by the neo-cons – are "poison" for the entire region.
Bush's refusal to back away from the Algerian diplomat confirmed that the
balance of power within the administration, at least on Iraq, has shifted
decisively toward the realists.
Finally, the decision not only to forgo a major attack on insurgents in
Fallujah but to also withdraw Marines to positions outside the city and
recognise a new, Ba'athist-led force to guarantee security there, defied the
hawks' increasingly shrill insistence that failure to crush the uprising and
capture or kill those responsible for the deaths of four U.S. private-security
contractors in early April would mark a strategic defeat for the occupation.
The deal, which clearly caught Pentagon civilians off-guard, appears to have
been negotiated by commanders on the ground and approved by the National
Security Council staff in the White House – one more indication that neo-cons
have fallen from grace.
But it also indicated a larger policy already announced by Coalition
Provisional Authority (CPA) chief Paul Bremer a week ago – that, in the words of
specialist Juan Cole at the University of Michigan, "the United States has
embarked on a policy of re-Ba'athification, rehabilitating thousands of
ex-Ba'athists and putting them to work."
This policy reversal, too, has been strongly opposed by Chalabi – who had
been in charge of the programme to eliminate members of former President Saddam
Hussein's Ba'ath Party from the public face of Iraq – and his allies in
But while the administration no longer appears to be heeding the neo-cons on
Iraq policy, the big question is whether these policy reversals will save the
U.S. occupation and Washington's minimum goals of putting in place (with
Brahimi's help) a broadly representative government that can both ensure
stability and go along with the indefinite presence of several discreetly
situated U.S. military bases.
On this, opinions in Washington are deeply divided, but a growing number of
analysts believe that policy changes might be too little, too late.
The foreign policy establishment was shocked by an interview in the Wall
Street Journal by
retired Gen. William E Odom who, among other posts, served as director of
the National Security Agency (NSA) under former President Ronald Reagan
(1981–89). "We have failed," he said last week, adding that even if an Iraqi
election takes place next January as scheduled, "anybody that's pro-American
cannot gain legitimacy."
Calling for a swift withdrawal, Odom, who is based at the conservative Hudson
Institute and has never been inclined to traditional isolationism, warned that
the continued presence of U.S. troops – let alone a major military crackdown
against Iraqi insurgents – was simply radicalising both Iraqis and other Arabs,
risking the destabilisation of the entire region.
"The issue is how high a price we're going to pay ... less, by getting out
sooner, or more, by getting out later"?
His analysis was bolstered by the results of a
detailed survey of 3,500 Iraqis throughout the country in late March and
early April released Thursday by the Gallup organisation, CNN and USA
Today. It found that 57 percent of Iraqis wants the U.S. occupation forces
to leave the country "immediately," defined as "in the next few months." When
the generally pro-U.S. Kurdish sample (representing about 13 percent of the
population), was excluded, the percentage of Iraqis favouring an immediate
withdrawal rose to two-thirds.
The detailed survey largely confirmed reports that the vast majority of
Iraqis have become very disillusioned with U.S. and other occupation forces over
the last 13 months. While pleased that Hussein is no longer in power, four out
of five non-Kurdish Iraqis said they now regard the coalition forces as
"occupiers" rather than "liberators."
Moreover, the survey was conducted before the sieges of Fallujah and Najaf,
which, according to most published reports, further alienated Iraqis from the
"If these polls' results are to be believed, we've already lost the war for
hearts and minds," noted one congressional aide, whose boss initially supported
"I don't believe that the American public generally understand what happened
in the first half of April, which is that the U.S. lost control of Iraq to a set
of popular uprisings and was forced to re-conquer the country," Cole told IPS.
But the cost in both Iraqi and U.S. lives was unexpectedly high. More than
130 U.S. soldiers were killed in April, more than died in the first six weeks of
last year's war itself; indeed, more than any one-month military death toll
since just before the last U.S. combat troops withdrew from Vietnam in 1973. The
fighting forced the administration to put off scheduled troop withdrawals and
consider sending in more soldiers.
The political result here has been a sharp drop in public confidence in
Bush's Iraq policy, according
to a New York Times/CBS poll released Thursday, which also found that
a record 58 percent of the U.S. public now believe the invasion has not been
worth the cost in lives and resources.
Cole said the decision to pull back from Fallujah, as well as other recent
major policy reversals "may have taken us back from the brink, but we could be
back there at any time."
Indeed, even as the Marines were pulling back from Fallujah, the Pentagon was
expediting the shipment of more heavy tanks and armoured vehicles to Iraq –
precisely the kind of weapons that counter-insurgency specialists say will make
it more difficult for occupation troops to win "hearts and minds."
The Associated Press
(AP) reported this week that the army had even requested ski areas in the
Sierra Nevada mountains that were using five howitzers to prevent avalanches to
return them immediately for use in Iraq and Afghanistan – another indication
that the military is both overstretched and preparing for the worst.
(Inter Press Service)