You can say what you like about George Bush, but no one can accuse him of crowd pleasing. His decision to ignore the advice of elder statesmen in the US establishment and escalate the “war on terror” has alienated millions round the world.
A recent BBC World Service opinion poll showed three quarters of the world’s population now think Bush’s Middle East policy is a disaster.
The US anti-war movement responded to Bush’s “surge” announcement by turning out half a million people in Washington DC last month.
This was the US’s biggest anti-war demo since the invasion of Iraq. American activists are reporting a spirit of popular dissent like that of February 2003.
In Britain, Bush’s new course has caused dismay in high places. Even senior supporters of the war like Hilary Benn and Peter Hain have been publicly trying to distance themselves from the whole project.
This is not surprising. Bush’s new turn can only deepen the chaos in Iraq. In a few days the US is planning to start trying to “clear out” the Shia militia from Sadr City, a Baghdad suburb with a population of two million.
One US expert predicted “Mogadishu times ten”, referring to the US’s bloody 1992 attack on Somalia.
Even General Petraeus, the new US commanding officer in Iraq, couldn’t muster much optimism, commenting feebly that “the situation is not hopeless”.
Turning on the Shia is likely to deepen sectarian divisions and it is bound to strengthen resistance to the presence of British troops in the mainly Shia south.
Meanwhile fighting is set to flare up in Afghanistan in the next few weeks as the snows clear and the geographical scope of the “war on terror” widens.
Most worrying of all, the neocons are trying to soften up opinion for a strike on Iran by blaming Iranian militants for their failure in Iraq.
It is tempting to think Bush has lost the plot – but in fact there is a kind of barbaric logic at work here. Bush’s obstinacy shows that he means what he says when he talks about a “long war”.
It shows the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq were not just disastrous responses to 9/11, but part of a wider imperial project – a project driven by insecurity rather than hyperpower confidence.
As the Observer put it last Sunday, “The times they are a-changing for the US elites. Washington is no longer capital of an unchallenged economic superpower. It faces real and growing competition from China, Europe and a newly confident Russia.”
These are the trends Bush and the neocons are trying to buck – and in these circumstances the US establishment needs to look ruthless rather than weak.
Drawing down troop numbers amid the carnage in Iraq would signal weakness. So instead Bush is tempted to look for a killer blow that can restore the authority of the US and its president.
In 1970, then US president Richard Nixon ordered the murderous carpet bombing of Laos and Cambodia just at the moment when the government was privately admitting defeat in Vietnam.
The neocons’ problem is that hatred of Bush is so widespread now that any escalation is likely to make matters worse.
In the words of the BBC poll report, “The more the US flexes its hard power – the more it deploys troops abroard or talks tough diplomatically – the more it seems to weaken its ability to influence the world.”
In Britain we are in a special situation. The handful around Tony Blair who continue to support Bush are utterly isolated. The Liberal Democrats’ call to bring all the troops out by October is the first big crack in the parliamentary consensus over the occupation of Iraq.
Next to no one will speak in favour of this war any more. An enourmous show of public opinion on 24 February can force the politicians to come out against Bush’s desperate plans.
Chris Nineham is an officer of the Stop the War Coalition. He writes here in a personal capacity. For more on the 24 February, go to www.stopwar.org.uk