Despite fading public and Republican confidence in his performance in Iraq and the wider "war on terror," U.S. President George W. Bush Thursday raised the stakes by warning that a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would lead to a takeover by al-Qaeda and the subversion of its pro-Western neighbors.
In his longest and most Churchillian defense of U.S. strategy to date, Bush insisted that Washington would persevere in Iraq, if for no other reason than the alternative would be so dire.
"This enemy considers every retreat of the civilized world as an invitation to greater violence," he declared to his audience at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). "In Iraq, there is no peace without victory. We will keep our nerve and we will win that victory."
Bush also attacked Syria and Iran by name, calling the two countries "allies of convenience" of Islamic radicals "with a long history of collaboration with terrorists."
Both countries have been the subject of meetings over the past 10 days of Bush’s top national security aides, amid growing calls by neoconservatives, in particular, to conduct military raids on targets in Syria to stop the alleged infiltration of radical Islamic fighters across the border into Iraq. U.S. troops are currently engaged in sweeps in western Iraq close to the frontier.
"The United States makes no distinction between those who commit acts of terror and those who support and harbor them, because they’re equally as guilty of murder," Bush said in a reprise of the pre-invasion warnings against Iraq when Washington accused Baghdad of supporting al-Qaeda.
And, in a further warning to Iran, Bush said he was "determined to deny weapons of mass destruction [WMD] to outlaw regimes, and to their terrorist allies who would use them without hesitation."
The main message of the speech, however, appeared to be aimed primarily at his fellow citizens, and particularly Republicans and senior military officers who have become increasingly uneasy about the direction of Bush’s anti-terrorist campaign, especially in Iraq.
Republican nervousness was on embarrassing display Wednesday night when, despite repeated White House veto threats, all but nine Republican senators joined their Democratic colleagues in attaching an amendment to the 2006 defense appropriations bill that banned the use of torture or inhumane treatment against detainees held by U.S. forces.
The 90-9 vote was the most one-sided repudiation of a Bush policy position since he became president in 2001.
"Republicans are saying that they just voted their conscience on the issue of torture," noted one Senate aide who works for a Democrat. "But if the war were going better, you know they wouldn’t have voted to embarrass the president in the way they just did."
Likewise, for several months now, senior officers have repeatedly suggested that the U.S. military presence in Iraq may actually be fueling the insurgency there, as well as providing new recruits to al-Qaeda elsewhere in Europe and the Islamic world, and that the most effective way to counter both trends is to begin withdrawing troops.
Just this past week, for example, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, told a congressional panel that the continued U.S. military presence "feeds the notion of occupation," while his superior officer, Gen. John Abizaid, testified at the same hearing that it was critical to "reduce our military footprint" in the region to "make clear to the people [there] that we have no designs on their territory and resources."
In that context, Bush’s emphatic rejection of such advice on Thursday, however, appeared designed to quash dissension and enforce discipline, particularly given the prominent presence in the audience of the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Peter Pace, as well as his boss, Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld.
"It may be his way of telling the generals to stop talking about drawing down the forces," ret. Amb. David Mack, vice president of the Middle East Institute (MEI) who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs under Bush’s father, told IPS.
The fact that the NED, a bastion of neoconservatism, was the chosen forum for Bush’s speech was also significant. It was there in November 2003 that the president first spelled out his "forward strategy of freedom" for the Middle East after his pre-invasion rationales for going to war with Iraq its WMD and alleged links with al-Qaeda proved to be unfounded.
Like his 2005 Inaugural Address, that speech was optimistic in style and tone, arguing that the construction of a democratic Iraq would produce a domino effect on the rest of the region that would spread freedom to Iran and the Arab world and thus reduce the resentments and frustrations that produced Islamic radicalism.
Thursday’s speech, by contrast, was animated far more by fear than by hope, particularly in its implicit admission that, as Mack put it, "the tables have turned" in the almost two years that have intervened.
"Instead of using Iraq as a way to transform the region, they now seem to recognize that they have put organizations like al-Qaeda in a position to transform the region in its favor. If you follow [Bush’s] logic, that’s what has happened: we’ve gone from this great opportunity to democratize the region to, ‘oh my God, we have to prevent even worse things from happening,’" he said.
Thus, Bush stressed that he concurred in Osama bin Laden’s own depiction of Iraq as "the central front in the war on terror," and warned that "the militants believe that controlling one country will rally the Muslim masses, enabling them to overthrow all moderate governments in the region, and establish a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia."
"With greater economic and military and political power, the terrorists would be able to advance their stated agenda: to develop weapons of mass destruction, to destroy Israel, to intimidate Europe, to assault the American people, and to blackmail our government into isolation," he said.
"Some might be tempted to dismiss these goals as fanatical and extreme. Well, they are fanatical and extreme and they should not be dismissed," he went on, comparing the radicals to Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot, and echoing the neoconservative mantra that "Evil men, obsessed with ambition and unburdened by conscience, must be taken very seriously, and we must stop them before their crimes can multiply."
Thus, a key element of U.S. strategy must be to "deny the militants control of any nation, which they would use as a home base and a launching pad for terror," he said, citing U.S. military operations against "remnants of the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies" in Afghanistan, as well as the fight against "regime remnants and terrorists in Iraq," and Washington’s "working with President [Pervez] Musharraf to oppose and isolate militants in Pakistan."
The argument that withdrawing from Iraq would actually make it more difficult for al-Qaeda and its allies to recruit and operate there was a "dangerous illusion," Bush said, "refuted by the simple question: ‘Would the United States and other free nations be more safe, or less safe, with [Abu Musab al-] Zarqawi and bin Laden in control of Iraq, its people, and its resources?’"
Unusually for Bush, he also warned that "this war will require more sacrifice, more time, and more resolve."
(Inter Press Service)