Last-Ditch Effort

It is almost unfair to analyze the president’s speeches on Iraq these days. It seems increasingly apparent that most Americans aren’t listening any more. Even if Dubya were to defy all expectations and deliver a convincing argument for staying the course (whatever that might mean beyond simply keeping American troops in Iraq where they will do their best and keep taking casualties in the absence of a coherent plan for dealing with the actual situation on the ground), at this point in the unraveling of his presidency he is unlikely to have much of an impact on public opinion.

Nonetheless, it is worth discussing what appears to be one of the major themes emerging from the tired reassurances: that the future of Iraq has to lie in a "unity" national government somehow cobbled together from the Shia majority, Sunni minority and Kurdish quasi-independence that emerged from the recent Iraqi elections. This appears to be a profoundly unrealistic expectation, and it is worth exploring the reasons why.

Assessing Bush’s speech seems especially unfair in that it not only constituted evidence that the Bush White House is developing a political tin ear, but one of the more critical assertions in the speech was virtually contradicted the next day by the nation’s top military official. If the top brass feel a necessity to tone down the president’s claims immediately, it just might suggest something less than enthusiastic support for a war in which the military is taking the attrition while the top civilian leadership (as usual) is ensconced in safety and luxury.


In his speech on Monday, the president said the following:

“Some of the powerful IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices] we are seeing in Iraq today includes components that come from Iran. Our director of national intelligence, John Negroponte, told the Congress, Tehran has been responsible for at least some of the increasing lethality of anti-coalition attacks by providing Shia militia with the capability to build improvised explosive devices in Iraq. Coalition forces have seized IEDs and components that were clearly produced in Iran. Such actions, along with Iran’s support for terrorism and its pursuit of nuclear weapons, are increasingly isolating Iran.”

Then there’s this from Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Peter Pace, as reported by Reuters:

“President George W. Bush said on Monday components from Iran were being used in powerful roadside bombs used in Iraq, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said last week that Iranian Revolutionary Guard personnel had been inside Iraq…Asked whether the United States has proof that Iran’s government was behind these developments, Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Pentagon briefing, ‘I do not, sir.'”

This doesn’t necessarily mean the president’s assertions are completely untrue. It does seem fairly well established that some Iranian cohorts have been active among the Shia in Iraq, but whether they were Revolutionary Guard personnel might be not completely proven. And there might be some reports, but not decisive ones, that the Iranians have assisted in the IED department. Gen. Pace might be splitting hairs here when he says he doesn’t have proof.

You would think, however, after the WMD debacle, that administration spokesmen would be especially careful about the accuracy of their assertions and avoid converting maybes into certainties, at least in public speeches that can be fact-checked. It’s interesting that Gen. Pace would apparently disagree so publicly with his civilian commander in chief, but then the Marines have often been a little more independent than other branches of the services.

It may be that Bush’s intention was to lay down a marker on Iran as a way of justifying future action against the regime. To be contradicted the next day by the country’s top military commander, however, will teach many Americans that Bush is as unreliable in his comments on Iran as he was before the war on Iraq.


Over the past couple of years I have heard any number of predictions that the United States was about to bomb Iran, and I have usually discounted them somewhat. Almost exactly a year ago the editors of American Conservative magazine asked me to write an article discussing the prospects for bombing and/or invasion of Iran by summer, then rejected it when it turned out too cautious, noting a number of reasons the United States might well decide it was not prudent to invade or bomb Iran just then. (It didn’t happen last summer, did it?)

I’m starting to get slightly more concerned about the possibility now. There’s Iran’s new shoot-from-the-lip president, of course, and the regime’s decision to resume nuclear fuel enrichment. The prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran frightens me less than it does others, but I’m in a distinct minority here. Those with access to missiles are clearly more concerned than I am.

Then there’s this article from Niall Ferguson, the noted British historian (of empire, among other things) now at Harvard, which not only provides some valuable insight into the coup d’etat at Harvard, but suggests that President Bush, unlike Larry Summers, facing restiveness among the congressional troops, “is going to bite back. And the obvious way for him to do this is over Iran.” Being a lame duck, when you have a military at your disposal, Ferguson intimates, means you have nothing left to lose.

Ferguson mentions VP Dick Cheney, who last Tuesday “gave a speech in which he bluntly declared: ‘We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.’ Remind you of anything? It was Cheney who set the pace four years ago, as the administration prepared to confront Iraq, insisting that Saddam already possessed weapons of mass destruction. And the same sequence of events now looks set to replay itself.”

Niall Ferguson’s tone in this article is strangely detached, not mentioning that this author of a justly celebrated history of the British Empire then called on a too-reluctant United States to take up the imperial burden in the coming century. I haven’t followed all of Ferguson’s musings lately, so I don’t know how he views Iraq these days. I doubt if he sees it as an example of successful empire-building.

Nonetheless, he is a fairly sober analyst. I am still not convinced the United States will attack Iran, hoping beyond hope that Iraq has provided a lesson in modesty of ambition. But you never know.


In his speech Monday President Bush – besides sounding condescending and almost colonial when talking about the supposed exploits and expertise of Iraqi security forces now that they’ve had U.S. tutelage – emphasized several times that the only acceptable course for Iraq is a national unity government. That is almost certainly an unrealistic hope. There may be a bit of genuine Iraqi nationalism in the country, but it’s unlikely there’s enough to overcome the religious division, which has been reinforced under Ottoman, British and Saddamite rule and the U.S. occupation. To keep talking of unity in such a situation is to sound like a fool.

If there’s to be any hope for Iraq, it will have to involve a structure with significant local autonomy, which will mean a weak central government that is unlikely to be unified but won’t have enough power to do too much mischief. Americans who refuse to acknowledge this are riding for a fall.


A few words about the president’s National Security Strategy released yesterday.

The headline for most of the media was the reaffirmation of the policy of "pre-emptive" first strikes against terrorists or enemy nations. The real news in the National Security Strategy statement released by national security adviser Stephen Hadley on Thursday, however, is a strengthened commitment to aggressive promotion of democracy throughout the world and the eventual elimination of tyranny everywhere, echoing President Bush’s second inaugural speech.

That’s not a strategy but an aspiration. Insofar as it is a naive aspiration, it bids fair to have the United States involved in open military and lower-level conflicts for years and even decades to come. Since military conflict always leads to bolstering the power of the central government and nibbling away at the freedoms of the citizens of the nation engaged in war, it is more likely to reduce freedom at home than to expand it abroad.

The document released this week has three major differences from the strategy document released in 2002, which broke with traditional U.S. foreign policy doctrine by declaring "pre-emptive" war a valid and indeed central policy option for this country. The language regarding Russia and China is notably more skeptical, verging on hostile, than in the earlier document. And this year’s strategy elevates Iran to the status of a major threat to the United States.


All these elements are subject to criticism. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of that strategy, however, is the failure to acknowledge the unique character of the brand of terrorist threat we face today. Al-Qaeda is a non-state, transnational organization devoted to a radical, politicized interpretation of Islam that sees destruction of Western and U.S. interests and peoples as the first step toward its messianic goals. It’s more like a multinational corporation or criminal enterprise than a government

The official U.S. strategy still thinks in terms of traditional state-to-state politics – thus it vows to prevent the jihadists from gaining control of a state as was close to the case in Afghanistan – but fails to recognize the unique challenge posed by modern jihadism. Without such recognition we can hardly expect an effective counter-strategy.

The strategy document and most of the media use the term "pre-emptive" war, with the war on Iraq viewed as an example. As we pointed out before that war, however, in international-relations jargon a pre-emptive war is one undertaken when you know for certain that an adversary is about to attack imminently, from troops massing along the border, airplanes being loaded with bombs, or other solid evidence, and you attack first.

The war in Iraq was a "preventive" war, designed to prevent a threat that might develop (or might not) in the near or medium term. Preventive wars are much less justifiable, morally and strategically, than pre-emptive strikes, and the invasion of Iraq turned out to be unjustified even on the basis of preventive-war doctrine. To have this confusion between pre-emptive and preventive war embedded in the heart of our national strategy document multiplies the opportunities for tragic miscalculation.


The national strategy document does contain a slight nod to the idea that "elections are not enough" – somewhat relevant in light of the fact that Hamas, identified as a terrorist organization by both the U.S. and the European Union, won the recent Palestinian election. But the document reflects extraordinary naiveté about the near-magical properties of democracy to prevent war and terrorism.

The notion that democracies don’t go to war with one another is a pious hope rather than a proven fact or even a documented trend. And as Ted Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute put it to me, "how did they imagine that liberal, open, Western-style democracies with strong civil societies would emerge in the Middle East as a result of an invasion?" One can certainly hope for such a development, but in real life they emerge from within a country rather than being imposed by outside forces, and can take decades or even centuries.

Whether to justify past misadventures or because administration notables really believe, this is an aggressive, crusading, Wilsonian foreign-policy document rather than one reflecting a realistic conservative policy. The administration seems to have learned nothing from experience over the past four years.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).