George Bush’s method when deciding his new Iraq strategy seems to have been to take the report of the Iraq Study Group (ISG) and, where it said minus, replace with a plus.
So where the ISG recommended that the US starts withdrawing its troops from the start of 2008, Bush decided to send 21,500 more soldiers and Marines. Where the ISG proposed talking to Iran and Syria, Bush accused them of backing the Iraqi resistance and said the US would “seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq”.
For Time magazine, “the surge is the latest salvo in the 30-year war between the two big foreign policy factions in the Republican Party – the internationalists and the neoconservatives”.
Chief of the internationalists is James Baker, co?chair of the ISG and former US secretary of state. He represents the wing of the US ruling class that wants to acknowledge and manage its failure in Iraq.
But it was the neoconservatives, chief architects of the war, that won the debate inside the Bush administration. Key players include Frederick Kagan, an academic at the right wing American Enterprise Institute, and ex-general Jack Keane.
In their report Choosing Victory they called for a “surge” of seven army brigades and Marine regiments. In the event, Bush opted to send five.
He did so against the opposition of his military leadership – hence the replacement of the chief of US Central Command, which covers the Middle East, and of the US commander in Iraq itself.
Even more remarkably, Bush’s client government in Iraq made it clear that it hadn’t asked for the additional US troops. The New York Times quoted officials close to Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki saying that, when Maliki met Bush in Jordan last November, he “demanded that American troops be pulled back to the periphery of Baghdad and that the war in the capital, at least, be handed to Iraqi troops”.
So, according to the New York Times, Bush’s eventual decision was “a hybrid – a plan that aims at marrying the Maliki government’s urgency for a broader licence to act with Bush’s determination to make what American officials… see as a last chance push for success in Iraq on American terms”.
The strategy’s big military and political test will come if the US sticks by its threat to attack the most powerful of the Shia Muslim militias, Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.
Sadr is the leader of the poor Shias who live in the shantytowns of Sadr City in eastern Baghdad.He has consistently called for the unity of all Iraqis against the occupation, and the US has unsuccessfully sought to isolate and destroy him.
But Sadr himself has his problems. His 30 MPs belong to the majority that keeps Maliki in office. He has failed to find significant political allies among Sunni Muslims. Despite his evidently sincere commitment to Iraqi unity, he has been unable to restrain many of his fighters from engaging in the sectarian warfare that now pervades Baghdad.
All the same, taking on Sadr and his supporters is no small undertaking. Some US intelligence officials estimate that the Mahdi Army is 60,000 strong. The “surge” will still leave US troop levels at 153,000, significantly lower than their highpoint of 165,000 in December 2005.
The last time the occupation confronted both Shia and Sunni resistance was during the first Fallujah crisis in April 2004. As the Washington Post put it, “troops [fighting in Sadr City]… became enmeshed in a series of clashes resembling the movie Black Hawk Down”. The US quickly retreated to a strategy of divide and rule, allying itself to the Shia political establishment in order to isolate the Sunni resistance in areas such as the Anbar province.
But this time it looks as though Bush is going for broke. This is an exceptionally dangerous move to take with so few troops. Fierce fighting in the centre of Baghdad last week showed that the Sunni resistance is still very much alive.
Contrary to neoconservative claims, Bush’s new strategy cannot bring him victory in Iraq. At most it will postpone defeat a little. But, along the way, Iraqis and Americans alike will pay a bloody price.