The Unpopular in Pursuit of the Unwinnable?

Hoping to reverse plunging confidence in his strategy for Iraq – and in his own leadership – U.S. President George W. Bush Wednesday launched a major campaign to persuade the public that Washington is indeed prevailing against the insurgency there.

Speaking before a generally friendly, if somewhat restrained, audience of cadets at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., Bush vowed to settle for "nothing less than complete victory" and repeated previous warnings against setting a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

To coincide with Bush’s speech, however, the White House released a "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq," which suggested that the administration is indeed preparing to draw down U.S. troops in 2006.

"We expect, but cannot guarantee, that our force posture will change over the next year, as the political process consolidates and as Iraqi Security Forces grow and gain experience," the 35-page document stated, noting as well that U.S. forces will increasingly "move to supporting roles in most areas."

And in spite of Bush’s insistence that the U.S. would not leave until it achieves "complete victory," the strategy document asserted that Iraq "is likely to struggle with some level of violence for many years to come."

Bush’s speech, as well as the strategy document’s release, marks the beginning of an unprecedented campaign to rally the public behind the president, as well as his policy in Iraq. With his approval ratings hovering below 40 percent for several weeks, Bush’s political advisers, as well as independent analysts, believe that the public’s perceptions of success or failure in Iraq will largely determine his political potency over the three years that remain in his presidency.

In addition to Wednesday’s address, Bush plans to give several other speeches on Iraq in the coming days, each featuring different aspects of his administration’s strategy and culminating in what the White House fervently hopes will be a huge turnout in Iraq’s elections Dec. 15.

Other top officials, including the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Peter Pace, have also scheduled speaking engagements that the White House hopes will not only dominate news coverage, but also make it appear that the strategy is one that is fully backed by the military itself.

That perception is regarded as particularly important at the moment, both because the administration and its supporters have tried hard in recent weeks to equate growing calls for withdrawal with a betrayal of the country’s soldiers, and because some of those calls have been endorsed by critics, notably Democratic Rep. John Murtha, with particularly close and long-standing ties to the uniformed military.

Murtha, a well-known hawk and highly decorated Marine veteran from both the Korean and Vietnam wars, shocked Washington two weeks ago when he called on Bush to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by mid-2006. "Our troops have become the primary target of the insurgency" and had become "a catalyst for violence," he said. "It’s time to bring them home."

While most of his fellow Democrats argued for a less hurried withdrawal of the nearly 160,000 troops who are currently deployed there, Murtha’s stance, coupled with Bush’s declining poll numbers and growing unrest among Republican lawmakers over Iraq’s impact on their reelection prospects next November, spurred panic in the administration.

It also infuriated Bush’s hawkish and neoconservative supporters, who launched their own media campaign accusing critics of "cutting and running" and reassuring the public that all the talk of the withdrawal would "snatch defeat from the jaws of victory" in Iraq.

"[T]he Iraqi people are in reach of a watershed transformation from the primitive killing tyranny of Saddam to modern, self-governing, self-securing nationhood," wrote Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Congress’ leading Democratic neoconservative, in The Wall Street Journal Tuesday, "unless the great American military has given them and us this unexpected opportunity is prematurely withdrawn."

It was not by accident Bush extolled Lieberman in Wednesday’s 40-minute speech which, like the former Democratic vice presidential candidate, insisted that Iraq had made "incredible progress" in the last two and a half years and was on the verge of a major breakthrough in its transformation into a democratic state.

The core of his remarks, however, was devoted to outlining progress made in training and equipping an estimated 210,000 Iraqi military and police forces, whose ability to replace U.S. troops is seen by both the administration and its critics here as the key to securing the latter’s withdrawal sooner rather than later.

While the process "hasn’t always gone smoothly," he admitted, "in the past year, Iraqi forces have made real progress" both in being able to operate independently of U.S. forces and "hold[ing]" territory and towns that had been cleared of insurgents by U.S. or joint U.S.-Iraqi forces on their own.

The growing capabilities of the security forces, Bush went on in an echo of the strategy document, will translate into reduced visibility and presence of U.S. troops. "We will increasingly move out of Iraqi cities, reduce the number of bases from which we operate, and conduct fewer patrols and convoys," he said.

"As the Iraqi forces gain experience and the political process advances, we will be able to decrease our troop levels in Iraq without losing our capability to defeat the terrorists," he went on, adding that those reductions "will be driven by the conditions on the ground in Iraq … not by artificial timetables set by politicians in Washington," in what was one of several notes of defiance that peppered the speech.

However, beneath that rhetoric, as well as in the new strategy document, could be found an approach to Iraq significantly closer to that advocated by realist critics ranging from former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft to ranking Democrats, than to the neoconservative vision with which the administration went to war in 2003.

"I think that Bush was trying to put the best possible face on a policy that he’s being forced to change by circumstances both here and in Iraq," Lawrence Korb of the Campaign for American Progress (CAP) and co-author of a widely-cited "redeployment plan" that calls for a gradual withdrawal from Iraq, told IPS.

"There’s no doubt that if you look at the troops that have been alerted to go next year, that you will have less than 100,000 troops in Iraq by the end of 2006," he added.

That was made evident not only by the references to the reduced visibility and presence of U.S. forces, but also to a much more nuanced breakdown of the "enemy" as consisting mostly of "rejectionists." These are described by Bush as "ordinary Iraqis, mostly Sunni Arabs" who must, as the strategy document made particularly clear, be cultivated through political means in order to isolate harder-core foes – "former regime loyalists" and "the terrorists affiliated with or inspired by al-Qaeda."

The strategy document implicitly assails the de-Ba’athification program that was so vigorously advocated by neoconservatives and expresses serious concerns about the infiltration of the new security forces by Kurdish and Shi’ite militia.

But it appears above all to reflect the more realist views of U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad; his military counterpart, Gen. George Casey; and new Deputy National Security Adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan Meghan O’Sullivan, who clashed frequently with neoconservatives in the Pentagon before and after the U.S. invasion.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.