Critics are right to label President Bush’s new Iraq plan an “escalation,” but what was most clear from his speech announcing it is that the object of this escalation is not Iraq, but Iran.
For all the smarmy talk about the Iraq Study Group, Bush bluntly rejected its central premise that the only way the U.S. can salvage anything in Iraq is through a new political agreement both among Iraqis and their neighbors — a process that takes into account the reality that Iran has legitimate interests in Iraq (far more so, quite frankly, than the U.S. does), and envisages a process in which all stakeholders are accommodated. Instead, Bush offered familiar distortions in his description of the reason for failure thus far — al-Qaeda and Iran, were the culprits, the former stoking sectarian violence through terror attacks and the latter ostensibly supporting death squads. Anyone familiar with the current dynamics in the Middle East would have taken President Bush’s outline of the consequences of failure — “radical Islamic extremists would grow in strength and gain new recruits” and “would be in a better position to topple moderate governments,” Iran would be emboldened and al-Qaeda would have a new safe haven — as an admission of failure, since all of those consequences are already in play.
But it was the characterization of Iran’s role that was most disturbing. Bush suggested that the Iraqi people had voted for united country at the polls, and seen their dreams dashed by the maneuvering of Iran and Syria and others. That’s a crock. Iran enthusiastically supported those elections, and why wouldn’t they? The Shiite majority voted overwhelmingly in favor of parties far closer to Tehran than they are to Washington. Moreover, while Bush implies that sectarianism was somehow a deviation from what the electorate had chosen, in fact the electorate had voted almost entirely on sectarian and ethnic lines. The sectarian principle is at the heart of the democratically elected government; it’s not some imposition by al-Qaeda or Iran.
Iran and Syria must be addressed, Bush said, but only as a threat — he accused them of offering support to insurgent forces attacking U.S. troops, and vowed to stop them. Almost in the same breath, he added: “We are also taking other steps to bolster the security of Iraq and protect American interests in the Middle East. I recently ordered the deployment of an additional carrier strike group to the region. We will expand intelligence sharing and deploy Patriot air defense systems to reassure our friends and allies. We will work with the governments of Turkey and Iraq to help them resolve problems along their border. And we will work with others to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating the region.”
Carrier strike groups and Patriot missile defenses are of no use in the counterinsurgency war in Iraq: They are an attempt to turn up the heat on Iran by preparing for an air strike, and putting in place the means to contain Iran’s response via its missile capability. Bush called for regional support, but only on the basis of his anti-Iran alliance — for the Sunni regimes, support for the U.S. in Iraq was cited as a duty in light of their common purpose in containing Iran.
So, essentially we’re now being asked to believe that the Iraqi government, dominated by Iran-friendly Shiite religious parties, is going to act in concert with Bush’s plan — and even Bush admitted that their support is the critical factor — giving U.S. forces the green light to take control of Sadr City from the Sadrists and so on, even as Washington moves its assets into position for a military strike on Iran. It may be, of course, that Washington is posturing in order to sweat Tehran into believing that a military strike is coming in order to intimidate the Islamic Republic into backing down, but frankly I wouldn’t bet on the collective strategic wisdom of Cheney-Rice and Khamenei-Larijani-Ahmedinajad combining to avoid a confrontation. And if the U.S. is raising the stakes, you can reliably expect Iran to do the same, probably starting in Iraq.
Even within the narrow Iraqi context, no matter what Maliki has told Bush, I wouldn’t bet on him coming through for the U.S. when the battle for Sadr City starts in earnest, and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, appalled by the violence, begins demanding that the U.S. go home.
Equally important, though, the new Bush moves give Iran no incentive to cooperate, and plenty of incentive to tie the U.S. up in an increasingly messy situation in Iraq. And my suspicion is that Tehran has hardly begun to exercise its ability to cause chaos in Iraq.
Again, the Bush Administration has failed to grasp the most basic lesson of his failures in Iraq and elsewhere — that military force has its limits, and that power is a more complex thing. Instead of recognizing what the likes of Baker and Scowcroft have emphasized all along — that the basic crisis in the region is political — Bush is going the Cheney lock-and-load route. Perhaps that’s why Bush warned Americans to expect another year of bloodletting. And stupendously reckless adventurism though it may be, I wouldn’t bet against him launching air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities. And then he’ll have to learn the same lesson all over again, because the region will be no safer or any more stable. On the contrary, I’d say it’s a safe bet that by the time he leaves the White House, the U.S. position everywhere from Lebanon, Egypt and the Palestinian territories to Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, will be considerably worse than it is now.