Robert Dreyfuss is an Alexandria, Va.-based writer specializing in politics and national security issues. He is the author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books, 2005), a contributing editor at The Nation and a writer for Mother Jones, The American Prospect and Rolling Stone. He can be reached through his website, www.robertdreyfuss.com.
At the tail end of the Vietnam war, when everyone in Washington knew that America had lost, peace talks stalled and President Richard Nixon ordered a massive bombardment of North Vietnam over Christmas, 1972. In a horrific and needless weeks-long reign of terror, the United States bombed cities and villages in Vietnam, including a devastating strike that demolished Bach Mai, Hanoi’s largest hospital. Once the president got that out of his system, the assault ended, the peace talks resumed and shortly thereafter the United States gave up on the war.
What President Bush is doing in Iraq is precisely the same thing. There is virtually no one in the foreign policy establishment, in the military or anywhere else who believes that the Iraq war can be won. But, by sending 21,500 more U.S. troops to Iraq to engage in a massive, citywide offensive in Baghdad, Bush is doing what Nixon did in 1972. He is unleashing carnage for reasons that are not military, but political and petulant. Many thousands of Iraqis, and not a few Americans, will die as a result—and, in the end, the United States will have to get out of Iraq anyway.
The essence of Bush’s “new” policy is to double the U.S. troop presence to about 40,000 soldiers and Marines in Baghdad, where they will act as shock troops for the forces of the an Iraqi army dominated by the Shiite militiamen. The U.S. forces will operate in and alongside thousands of Shiite-dominated army and police thugs. Said Bush:
The Iraqi government will deploy Iraqi Army and National Police brigades across Baghdad’s nine districts. When these forces are fully deployed, there will be 18 Iraqi Army and National Police brigades committed to this effort—along with local police. These Iraqi forces will operate from local police stations—conducting patrols and setting up checkpoints and going door-to-door to gain the trust of Baghdad residents.
In other words, U.S. forces will bolster the death squads operated by Iraqi army and police units, whose sectarian atrocities have been widely chronicled. The “patrols” and “checkpoints” they establish have gained a reputation for murderous, anti-Sunni massacres and kidnappings, and it is certain that by “going door-to-door” they will do anything but “gain the trust of Baghdad residents,” at least if they are Sunnis.
A preview of the new policy unfolded this week in Baghdad. Astonishingly, there, U.S. forces waged an all-out, day-long firefight that wreaked havoc along a stretch of Haifa Street, one of Iraq’s main thoroughfares, which runs south along the Tigris River right into the U.S.-fortified Green Zone. The area along Haifa Street is mostly Sunni, and when the people of the neighborhood defended it against a foray by a Shiite death squad, U.S. troops intervened in support of the Shiites. A thousand U.S. troops, backed by heavy weapons, helicopters and F-15s laid waste to the area. “It was the most intense combat I have ever seen,” a U.S. operations officer told the Washington Post . “We were in a fight for 11 straight hours.” The Iraqi government reported that at least 50 “insurgents” were killed.
It should be pointed out that this intense combat took place not in some remote village in Anbar province, but in downtown Baghdad, less than a mile from the U.S. embassy, within walking distance of the Green Zone. That is the sort of counterinsurgency warfare that the Bush administration plans to wage across all of Sunni Baghdad, in alliance with the Shiite-led regime of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
So, it appears that President Bush has decided to launch a major escalation of the war in the face of bipartisan opposition to it in Congress, in the face of strong resistance to it by the U.S. military command, and despite last November’s election that was widely interpreted as a mandate from voters to end the war not to expand it. He is sending 20,000 more U.S. soldiers into what is certain to be house-to-house combat in Sunni areas of the Iraqi capital.
But, like the Christmas bombing of Hanoi in 1972, which was the last gasp of the imperial American effort to control Vietnam, the New Year’s escalation in Baghdad in 2007 is probably the last gasp of Bush’s own imperial misadventure.
What Bush is doing should not be mistaken for the sort of all-out victory push that was called for by the neoconservatives. As outlined by Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, and others, the so-called surge must be long-lasting and it must involve “at least 30,000” additional U.S. forces. “It is difficult to imagine a responsible plan for getting the violence in and around Baghdad under control that could succeed with fewer than 30,000 combat troops beyond the forces already in Iraq,” wrote Kagan in the Post last month. (Other military analysts have suggested that, to be successful, the United States would have to add 100,000 troops or more.) And even with the 20,000 additional forces, the total U.S. military force in Iraq will be only 153,000, less than the 165,000 in Iraq in December, 2005, for the Iraqi election. And Bush intends to dribble the added forces in, a few thousand at a time, over months and months.
In fact, Bush—who repeatedly cited the Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by his father’s secretary of state, James A. Baker—said for the first time last night that America’s occupation of Iraq might be cut short if things don’t go as planned. Together with the announcement of the “surge,” Bush issued a laundry list of requirements that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government must meet—or else. “I have made it clear to the prime minister and Iraq's other leaders that America's commitment is not open-ended,” Bush said last night. “If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it “will lose the support of the American people—and it will lose the support of the Iraqi people.”
Never before has the president suggested that the American commitment to winning in Iraq is not “open-ended.” In the past, Bush said repeatedly that America is in Iraq to stay and win, no matter what. Now, for the first time, he is suggesting that the United States might pack up and leave if the Iraqis don’t settle their ethnic and sectarian differences. In particular, Bush demanded that Maliki’s Shiite regime more equitably share oil revenues with Sunnis, bring more Sunnis into power, eliminate the purge of Baath party members and rewrite Iraq’s divisive, pro-Shiite constitution.
Although, regrettably, Bush did not announce fixed timetables for the government of Iraq to meet this list of to-do items, his statement that the U.S. commitment is “not open-ended” opens a small window for an eventual U.S. exit from Iraq. It is almost certain that Maliki will accept U.S. military help to suppress the Sunni insurgency. Maliki might, under certain circumstances, be willing to join with the United States in confronting the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia loyal to rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. But it is not likely at all that Maliki will embrace the efforts that the United States wants to reincorporate the Sunnis into Iraqi political life.
So, in the end, the current Bush effort to “surge” forces into Iraq won’t do more than harass the growing Sunni resistance movement, and it won’t bring Iraq closer to any sort of stable political accord across the Sunni-Shiite divide. When it becomes clear that the latest new Iraq policy has failed, then it’s possible that even the White House will have to make good on its promise that America’s role in Iraq is not “open-ended,” and close it.