Less Than Zero

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On the surface, President Bush’s Wednesday night speech adds up to precisely nothing. The President said, “It is clear that we need to change our strategy in Iraq,” but the heart of his proposal, adding more than 20,000 U.S. troops, represents no change in strategy. It is merely another “big push,” of the sort we have seen too often in the past from mindless national and military leadership. Instead of Dave Petraeus, why didn’t Bush ask Sir Douglas Haig to take command?

Relying on more promises from Iraq’s nominal government and requiring more performance from the Iraqi army and police are equally empty policies. Both that government and its armed forces are mere fronts for Shiite networks and their militias. If the new troops we send to Baghdad work with Iraqi forces against the Sunni insurgents, we will be helping the Shiites ethnically cleanse Baghdad of Sunnis. If, as Bush suggested, our troops go after the Shiite militias in Baghdad and elsewhere, we will find ourselves in a two-front war, fighting Sunnis and Shiites both. We faced that situation briefly in 2004, and we did not enjoy it.

All this, again, adds up to nothing. But if we look at the President’s proposal more carefully, we find it actually amounts to less than zero. It hints at actions that may turn a mere debacle into disaster on a truly historic scale.

First, Mr. Bush said that previous efforts to secure Baghdad failed for two reasons, the second of which is that “there were too many restrictions on the troops we did have.” This suggests the new “big push” will be even more kinetic that what we have done in the past, calling in more firepower — airstrikes, tanks, artillery, etc. — in Baghdad itself. Chuck Spinney has already warned that we may soon begin to reduce Baghdad to rubble. If we do, and the President’s words suggest we will, we will hasten our defeat. In this kind of war, unless you are going to take the “Hama model” and kill everyone, success comes from de-escalation, not from escalation.

Second, the President not only upped the ante with Syria and Iran, he announced two actions that only make sense if we plan to attack Iran, Syria or both. He said he has ordered Patriot missile batteries and another U.S. Navy aircraft carrier be sent to the region. Neither has any conceivable role in the fighting in Iraq. However, a carrier would provide additional aircraft for airstrikes on Iran, and Patriot batteries would in theory provide some defense against Iranian air and missile attacks launched at Gulf State oil facilities in retaliation.

To top it off, in questioning yesterday on Capitol Hill, the Tea Lady, aka Secretary of State Rice, refused to promise the administration would consult with Congress before attacking Iran or Syria.

As I have said before and will say again, the price of an attack on Iran could easily be the loss of the army we have in Iraq. No conceivable action would be more foolish than adding war with Iran to the war we have already lost in Iraq. Regrettably, it is impossible to read Mr. Bush’s dispatch of a carrier and Patriot batteries any other way than as harbingers of just such an action.

The final hidden message in Mr. Bush’s speech confirms that the American ship of state remains headed for the rocks. His peroration, devoted once more to promises of “freedom” and democracy in the Middle East and throughout the world, could have been written by the most rabid of the neo-cons. For that matter, perhaps it was. So long as our grand strategy remains that which the neo-cons represent and demand, namely remaking the whole world in our own image, by force where necessary, we will continue to fail. Not even the greatest military in all of history, which ours claims to be but isn’t, could bring success to a strategy so divorced from reality. Meanwhile, Mr. Bush’s words give the lie to those who have hoped the neo-cons’ influence over the White House had ebbed. From Hell, or the World Bank which is much the same place, Wolfi had to be smiling.

No, Incurious George has offered no new strategy, nor new course, nor even a plateau on the downward course of our two lost wars and failed grand strategy. He has chosen instead to escalate failure, speed our decline and expand the scope of our defeat. Headed toward the cliff, his course correction is to stomp on the gas.

William Lind [send him mail] is an analyst based in Washington, DC.

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