"Is He Resolute—or Delusional?" That was the question on the cover of the May 14 issue of U.S. News & World Report. Tough call, but I'm going with resolute and delusional. President Bush is resolute about Iraq, delusional about America.
Militarily, Bush's Iraq policy is desperate but hardly crazy. If a string of "enoughs" go right, it might work. By "surging" more troops into Baghdad, Bush hopes to reduce insurgent and sectarian violence enough to stabilize the military situation in Iraq and the political situation in Washington. That initial success might lend him enough momentum and public support to sustain the operation long enough to do the really difficult thing, which is to establish a government in Iraq that is competent enough, and broad-based enough, to make and enforce a nonsectarian peace. If the Iraqi government can establish itself in enough of the country, U.S. forces could come home without leaving a civil war or failed state behind.
Many experts say this is what the United States should have been doing years ago. Attempting it now is a long shot, but there is nothing delusional about playing the best card you have, which is what Bush is doing. Where he appears to be kidding himself is not about the military situation in Iraq but the political situation at home.
Even under the best-case military scenario, building a passably effective government and tolerably stable politics in Iraq will take time. How long? Many experts talk years, not months—and those experts prominently include America's "commanders on the ground," as Bush calls them.
Freed from captivity as Donald Rumsfeld's sock puppets, senior U.S. officers are performing valorous acts of candor on an almost daily basis. Last month, Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, warned that the endeavor "clearly is going to require enormous commitment and commitment over time." This month, Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch predicted a "decisive effect on enemy formations" by August or September but went on to say, "I don't see there will be significant progress on the government side between now and fall." He added: "Counterinsurgency operations that have been successful in the past took a minimum of nine years."
The generals were doing everything short of sending up fireworks to warn that Americans will not know by September whether Iraq can be secured enough so that U.S. forces can come home. Rather, Americans may know whether Iraq can be secured enough so that U.S. forces can productively stay in Iraq. If the surge works, the troops would resume what they were doing four years ago: building the government, rebuilding the country, and (hopefully) standing down as Iraqis stand up.
Bush is, in effect, asking for a do-over. It is a tough request to make, and audacious in light of the administration's performance the first time around; but Bush warns that the alternative is worse, because to fail in Iraq would be a disaster.
Here he runs into a problem. The public does indeed believe that failure in Iraq would be a disaster—for Iraq. But the public does not believe it would be a disaster for the United States. To the contrary: In an April CBS News poll, only 30 percent of respondents said that a withdrawal from Iraq would increase the threat of terrorism against the United States, while 59 percent said there would be no change and 8 percent said the threat would diminish. Other polls have been finding for the better part of two years that the public sees the Iraq war as making the United States no safer from terrorism. The public, in other words, views stabilizing Iraq as social work rather than security work.
In the past year, public opinion has tipped from expecting U.S. success in Iraq to expecting failure, but Bush's bigger problem is that the public has rejected his whole strategic vision. "By a nearly 2-to-1 margin," the Gallup Organization reported last month, "Americans say the benefits of winning the war in Iraq to the United States are not worth the costs the United States would have to bear in order to win it." Bush believes that the United States cannot afford to lose in Iraq; the public believes that the United States cannot afford to win.
Bush's conviction that the public is wrong draws sustenance from the fact that Republicans, unlike Democrats and independents, agree with him that the United States cannot afford to lose. Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California (San Diego), finds the Iraq campaign to be far and away the most partisan war in the history of polling, with Democrats' support for the war running 50 to 60 percentage points below Republicans'. "There's nothing even close," he says. Partisan divisions over earlier wars, from Korea through Kosovo and Afghanistan, were reliably less than 30 percentage points, usually in the range of 10 to 20 points, and less than 10 points for Vietnam. To an extent that is without modern precedent, and that may be without any precedent, Bush is fighting a one-party war.
He has held out against public opinion longer than I thought he could. (Eighteen months ago, I predicted in this space that he would begin withdrawing forces during the summer of 2006 rather than lose one or both chambers of Congress in the fall. Silly me.) But not even the most resolute or delusional president can run a major war with only the (softening) support of one party, while a majority of the public believes that the whole effort is a waste of time.
As the public's exasperation and anger grow, so does the risk that a change of policy on Iraq, when it comes, will take the form of a chaotic collapse instead of an orderly retrenchment. By refusing to accommodate public doubts or to prepare for setbacks or disengagement, Bush seems to be all but begging for a collapse. According to the New York Times, when pressed in January by congressional leaders on why he thought the new strategy would succeed where previous efforts had failed, Bush "shot back, 'Because it has to.' " Plan B is that Plan A has to work.
That seems inadequate, to say the least. Some sort of disengagement has become inevitable, a political reality that Bush's defiance will not disguise from any Iraqi insurgent who can read a newspaper. Instead of risking a catastrophic disengagement, a wise administration would start planning for an orderly one.
One way to do that—not the only way, but a good place to start the discussion—would be to go to the United Nations now to arrange help with the civilian tasks that American combat forces, successful or not, will leave behind as they pull back. Where the surge succeeds in providing security, infrastructure will need fixing, families will need housing and social services, government workers will need training, and private workers will need jobs.
"When you're talking about people who know how to go into a Third World country and know how to rebuild a power grid or an irrigation system, those people quite frankly do not exist in the U.S. government," says Kenneth Pollack, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. "It's the United Nations and the NGOs"—nongovernmental organizations that provide aid and other forms of development assistance—"that have the skills and experience to take on these operations."
The United Nations already maintains a mission in Iraq that would like to take on more tasks, Pollack says. Far more help could become available, he adds, if the United States plugged the U.N. into the chain of command.
And if the surge fails, leaving Iraq in chaos or civil war? Then the administration will need the help of many of those same United Nations and private-agency networks—to administer humanitarian aid, shelter and resettle refugees, monitor borders, conduct mediation and local diplomacy, and so on. Either way, getting them into the field will take months from a standing start. Why not begin lining them up now? "I'd have started that six months ago," Pollack says.
President Bush might be right. Perhaps a successful surge will reconcile Americans to a long deployment in Iraq. Perhaps he can make Iraqis believe that Americans will bear any burden, pay any price for Iraqi freedom. Perhaps he can come up with the troops and materiel to sustain the operation indefinitely. Perhaps his party can campaign and win on a promise to sustain the operation indefinitely after Bush leaves office. Perhaps, therefore, preparing now for disengagement would amount to a premature admission of failure.
Or perhaps Bush is neglecting to make provisions for an inevitable and clearly foreseeable disengagement, courting chaos when the moment comes. Perhaps he has trouble distinguishing between accommodation and capitulation, between prudence and defeat. Perhaps he is shutting his eyes and muscling ahead. If so, it would not be the first time.
© Copyright 2007 National Journal
Jonathan Rauch is a senior writer and columnist for National Journal and a frequent contributor to Reason. The article was originally published by National Journal.