A Cynical Effort to Save Bush’s Legacy

It seemed a strange gamble when President George W. Bush doubled his bet on a messy war in Iraq and opted to dramatically increase the number of U.S. military forces in that country instead of reducing them as American popular opinion demanded. In a republic, escalating an unpopular war is risky…

…unless you are leaving office relatively soon. Although cleverly maintaining the rhetorical goal of creating a unified, democratic, and stable Iraq, Bush’s cynical policies on the ground have focused on ensuring temporary stability but abandoning the goals of holding Iraq together and giving it democracy. Media attention has attributed all of the reduced violence to the surge, but other factors are as or more important. First, prior violent ethnic cleansing has resulted in more homogenous areas of Sunnis and Shia. Separation of the warring groups has reduced sectarian conflict. In addition, Gen. David Petraeus has bought off former Sunni insurgents with arms and training in order to fight the incompetent al-Qaeda in Iraq. Al-Qaeda was so violent against civilians that even their Sunni brothers became sick and tired of them. Because now U.S.-backed Sunni groups stood down from initiating anti-U.S. attacks and prosecuting sectarian war against the Shia, Shi’ite militias, including those of radical anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, are quiescent. The United States is working with al-Sadr forces in some places to dole out aid. Because al-Sadr’s militia has been relatively quiet, so have the forces of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, his main Shi’ite rival.

So far so good, right? What evidence is there that the Bush administration’s strategy is cynical and political? After all, the surge will end during the critical summer before the election, thus increasing the chances of renewed violence, so how can the strategy be primarily political? Even if it is, aren’t Iraqis better off?

With reduced violence, the Iraqis are better off in the short term. The problem is that the entire strategy is designed to dampen violence in Iraq during the remainder of Bush’s term but will likely exacerbate it after he leaves office. The whole concept could unravel in the future if al-Qaeda in Iraq is defeated and the United States again becomes enemy number 1, or if the United States stops paying off the former Sunni guerrillas. In Afghanistan, the United States has had the experience of funding, arming, and training anti-Soviet mujahedeen forces that eventually bit the hand that fed them. More recently, when the U.S. cut off funding from some Afghan warlords, they changed sides and are now fighting the United States. The risk is that instead of merely aiding two sides in a future full-blown Iraqi civil war – the Kurdish militias and the Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi security forces – the United States is now arming and training the third side Sunni of the triangle as well. Thus, administration policies that dampen violence now may fuel it in the long-term – after the U.S. election and the departure of Bush from office.

But if the strategy is politically motivated, why will the troop surge end in mid-summer – with plenty of time for violence to spike again prior to the election and before Bush can escape from office? The answer is that the surge will not end in mid-summer. Although the media is parroting the administration’s line that the 30,000-troop surge will be erased by mid-summer – with a reduction of U.S. active forces from 153,000 to 120,000 – National Guard and Reserve forces will be increased 25,000 to fill the gap left by the departure of some of those regular forces. Thus, the actual total U.S. troop reductions will be small.

But the media’s focus on only active forces creates the perception that the administration has begun to permanently stabilize the situation enough to start bringing U.S. forces home – a distortion that serves the Republican Party well for the election. In reality, the higher force levels will largely be retained until Bush leaves office.

Although perpetuating the undue strain on the U.S. military, continuing the surge under the radar (and paying off the Sunni guerrillas) will suppress the violence until Bush leaves office. Then Nixon-era perception management will take over. That’s where Henry Kissinger comes in.

Some time ago, it was revealed that Kissinger has been secretly advising Bush on the war. And it shows. Even today, Kissinger continues to self-servingly spin the end of the Vietnam as follows: the Nixon administration was winning the war until the Democratic Congress cut off funding. Of course, that line of argument is nonsense. In 1971, President Nixon wanted to end U.S. involvement in the lost cause until Kissinger pointed out to him that South Vietnam might fall during the election year of 1972. Not surprisingly, the peace deal with the North was delayed until early 1973 – safely after Nixon’s reelection. Of course, many U.S. military personnel and Vietnamese died during that time to ensure that Nixon was reelected. (Nixon took the same cynical approach to the economy, pumping it up before the election while realizing that the resultant ill-effects – for example, price inflation – would not be felt until after the plebiscite.)

Similarly, Kissinger has apparently taught Bush that he can retroactively spin the history of Iraq. If Bush can keep a lid on the violence until he leaves office – even though he is doing so with policies that are likely further strain the U.S. military, get more U.S. soldiers and Iraqis killed, and exacerbate the still likely full-blown civil war when it comes – he can say that everything was going well until his successor, whether a Democrat or a Republican, took over. Paying off Sunni guerrillas and surging U.S. forces has not closed the cavernous fractures among the ethno-religious groups in Iraqi society. Because of the underlying societal fissures, even if the Iraqi parliament continues to pass "reconciliation" laws, such as the recent one reintegrating some Ba’ath Party members into the government, the suspicions created by prior sectarian violence will probably cause them to be only window dressing. Thus, Bush will have passed the Iraqi tar baby to his successor and found a way to lessen the blame on himself for the mess. No matter what Bush’s successor does – continue to hold his or her finger in the dike (the most likely scenario) or withdraw U.S. forces – Iraq is likely to face a full-blown civil war down the road. Unfortunately, media coverage of the surge and the "drawdown" have abetted Bush’s future retrospective yarn.

Author: Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.