“Watch what we do, not what we say,” was the retort of Attorney General John Mitchell to reporters questioning Nixon’s commitment to desegregation.
Though mocked for cynicism, Mitchell was right. Even as Nixon’s men were railing at the radical idiocy of forced busing for racial balance, they were desegregating six times as many schools as LBJ.
Bush’s tough talk, too, about staying the course “We’re not leaving until the job is done, pure and simple” may not be a smokescreen to cover a strategic retreat from Iraq. Bush may be in earnest.
Ten days ago, Sen. John McCain warned of a possible defeat in Iraq more disastrous than the fall of Vietnam. He called for 15,000 more U.S. troops. Pentagon response? It leaked plans to cut U.S. forces by 30,000 by May.
Another sign Bush appears to want to toss this hot potato to Iraqis is the enlistment of Iraqi police and military at an almost reckless pace. Have these scores of thousands of soldiers and cops been vetted for loyalty? Also, our man in Baghdad, Paul Bremer, was called back to Washington urgently, then sent back to speed up the transfer of power. By June, the Iraqis are to have their own provisional government.
Thus, the emergent wisdom is this: Jolted by U.S. casualties, the coordination and lethality of the latest attacks, now running at 30 a day, and faltering home-front support, the White House has begun to advance its timetable for withdrawal.
Yet, it is impossible to believe Bush is about to “cut-and-run,” as his enemies contend. It goes against his natural instincts, and his interests. A rapid pullout would risk a bloodbath against all who cast their lot with America, civil war in Iraq and a humiliation more devastating to U.S. credibility than the fall of Saigon. Should Iraq collapse, Bush would risk defeat in 2004 and enter the history books as a failed president who had blundered into the most ill-conceived war in U.S. history.
Surely he knows this. Which is why I believe Bush and his War Cabinet may have another strategy in mind, which is this. The president intends to draw down U.S. forces to a hard core of fighters, perhaps 90,000, backed by U.S. air power, a force 15 times as large as the mobile U.S. force in Afghanistan. This force will carry the brunt of battle in a new war against the guerrillas and terrorists, and be less concerned with winning hearts and minds in the Sunni Triangle than killing enemy fighters. Operation Iron Hammer is the dress rehearsal for the new war.
An Iraqi assembly will be elected and a leader chosen upon whom the United States can rely to fight a “long, hard slog.” This leader will, with U.S. training, rapidly expand the Iraq army and police forces. Unlike Vietnam’s President Thieu, who was abandoned in 1973, this leader, like Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, will be able to call on U.S. firepower to win any battle against attacking guerrillas.
Goal: Convince undecided Iraqis, who cannot wish to be ruled by Saddam and the Ba’athists, or Islamic radicals, that America and her allies are going to win the war, so it is wiser and safer to cast their lot with us.
Do not rule out the possibility that Bush escalates rather than retreats, that he puts his faith in winning the war rather than consigning Iraq to the Iraqi electorate and hoping for the best. Use of bombers near Tikrit and gunships around Baghdad may be harbingers of the war to come.
The enemy strategy also seems clear. Roadside bombs, firings on helicopters, the sniping at U.S. troops, the mortar and rocket shelling of our installations are designed to ratchet up casualties and break America’s will.
Attacks on U.N. and Red Cross headquarters, the Italian military base and the Jordanian embassy are designed to terrify aid workers into fleeing and peel off U.S. allies, to make reconstruction fail.
But in their attacks on Iraqi police, the enemy may, as the Viet Cong did with the massacre of Vietnamese civilians during the Tet Offensive in Hue, convince Iraqis they have to take sides, even if they would prefer to wait and see who is going to win.
Bush is being pushed to hand Iraq over to a United Nations he distrusts, to NATO allies who failed to help, to Arabs who opposed his war. With his presidency and place in history on the line, my guess is Bush puts his chips on what he believes has never failed him the firepower of the Armed Forces of the United States.
Just a hunch, but we may not be headed out of Iraq. We may be headed into the third and longest Arab-American war in a dozen years.
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