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Matthew Stevenson

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“a nation which has lost the initiative has lost the war”
–Benito Mussolini

Watching President Bush deliver his awkward remarks about Iraq–yet another Internet video clip of a man being pilloried for his brutal rule in Iraq–I could not help but think: “Where is Saddam now that we need him?” To hear Bush describe the front lines, the United States and its allies are confronting civil war, although here it is defined with words like “sectarian violence” (a phrase that might also have worked for Gettysburg). In other words, the center has not held around Baghdad. The response of the Bush administration, which has invested $359 billion dollars in the concept of a democratic Iraq, is to send in 20,000 more American troops and lure suicide bombers away from their missions with offers of on-the-job training. Sadly, neither embedding American forces in Iraqi patrols nor stuffing ballot boxes in the provinces will alter the reality that to keep Iraq together as one country, you have to adopt Saddam’s methods and brutality. Judging by the 34,000 civilian Iraqi deaths in 2006, it might be concluded that the U.S. is at least giving it a try.

The reason the President has become Saddam’s surrogate is because he believes that Iraq is an important domino in his War on Terror. In his address the President states that, should Iraq fall, “radical Islamic extremists would grow in strength and gain new recruits. They would be in a better position to topple moderate governments, create chaos in the region, and use oil revenues to fund their ambitions. Iran would be emboldened in its pursuit of nuclear weapons.” He believes the U.S. is fighting enemies that have “declared their intention to destroy our way of life.” According to the President, the politics of the Middle East constitute “the decisive ideological struggle of our time.” The Great Game between Islam and the West looks and sounds a lot like the old Cold War.

Not since the administrations of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon has the domino theory had such an advocate as it now finds in President Bush. By his logic, the war in Iraq–like Vietnam to an earlier generation–is a test case of America’s resolve. Win in Iraq, and you will have broken the will of terrorism. Admit defeat and withdraw, and Iraq will slide into the terrorist camp from which attacks will be launched against the U.S. Cutting and running from Iraq will also embolden Iran to continue with its nuclear research, give al-Qaida access to oil revenue, and strengthen Syria–all at the expense of American interests.

The original pretext for the American-led invasion of Iraq was to dislodge weapons of mass destruction, which Saddam might use on his neighbors, and to remove the Ba’athist regime. (“We’re taking out that fucker,” is how the President summarized his war aims to his then National Security advisor, Condoleezza Rice.) Previously, the front lines in the War on Terror were further east, near the Hindu Kush, where the followers of Osama bin Laden were in mountainous caves hatching plans against the West. In his speech, Mr. Bush tiptoes bravely past that graveyard–”America’s men and women in uniform took away al Qaeda’s safe haven in Afghanistan – and we will not allow them to re-establish it in Iraq”–although from all accounts the Taliban has recently made inroads in recapturing large parts of Afghanistan. Nor was there any mention of Osama being wanted ‘dead or alive’. Instead the President is betting the ranch on winning the battle for Baghdad, on the theory that winning in Iraq will make “success in the War on Terror much easier.” He seems unfamiliar with the military maxim, “never reinforce failure.”

Oddly, given the stakes (“our way of life—”) in such a professed global struggle, the President’s tactics fail to rise above the defeatist posture of Vietnamization, President Nixon’s strategy to dump the war in Vietnam on Saigon. In Iraq, President Bush speaks of embedding American forces (as if they were television reporters) in Iraqi brigades and holding the Baghdad government accountable to “benchmarks” (as if it were an illiquid hedge fund). Under this logic, the administration says the U.S. is fighting a mortal enemy, one that threatens American society to the core; in response to this grave threat, our plan is to order American soldiers out on joint patrols with Iraqi police (who may or may not show up for work).

One of the dirty secrets in the War on Terror is that the U.S. is running short of front-line soldiers, which may explain the decision to outsource to the Iraqi police. Despite a Homeland Security and defense budget of nearly half a trillion dollars, for the U.S. to do battle in Iraq it has had to rotate the same Army and Marine Corps divisions in and out of the country. Some regiments of these elite divisions (First Marines, 82nd Airborne) have done five or six tours of duty. In his speech, the President pleads: “We can begin by working together to increase the size of the active Army and Maine Corps, so that America has the Armed Forces we need for the 21st century.” At the same time weekend warriors from the National Guard find themselves forgotten in Iraq, stranded at bases scattered around the country as if forming a Muslim Maginot Line.
All the “surge” in American forces accomplishes is to bring up the troop numbers, in country, to what they were in May 2003. It tops up with Americans those soldiers withdrawn from the coalition of the increasingly unwilling. Using the ratio of five supports troops for every soldier in combat, the numbers of those doing the actual fighting in Iraq would be about 30,000. More likely only about 15,000 American soldiers are at the sharp end, in a country geographically larger than France. Even Alexander the Great came to Mesopotamia with more men.