World opinion is against it. The American people are against it. The Democratic Party is against it. The Congress of the United States is against it. The Iraq Study Group is against it. The Iraqi people are against it. The Iraqi government is against it. Many Republican lawmakers are against it. The top brass are against it. But George W. Bush is going to do it: send 21,500 more troops into Iraq. Can a single man force a nation to fight a war it does not want to fight, expand a war it does not want to expand–possibly to other countries? If he can, is that nation any longer a democracy in any meaningful sense? Is its government any longer a constitutional republic? If not, how can democratic rule and the republican form of government be restored? These are the unwelcome questions that President Bush’s decision has forced on the country.
The troop increase itself is not likely to change much in Iraq. Troop strength fell to about 115,000 in early 2004. By late 2005 it had risen to 160,000, only to fall to 130,000 again in mid-2006. Neither the 2005 increase (much larger than the one now ordered by Bush) nor the 2006 ebb had any demonstrable effect on the course of the war. In any case, almost everyone declares by now that there is no military solution in Iraq, only a political one. But the hard truth is that there is probably no political solution, either. Certainly, it is beyond the power of the United States to achieve one. Only Iraqis have the capacity to solve their political problems, yet there is no sign that they are headed in this direction. On the contrary, they are sliding deeper into a sort of half-smothered, underground civil war of extraordinary brutality. The professed mission of the American troops is to stop this internal war. But how can that be done with an M-16? “Whom do you shoot at–the Sunni or the Shia?” Senator John Warner has appropriately asked. Perhaps both? In that case, which Iraqis are American troops fighting for?
The only thing new about the increase is its prime-time announcement by the President and its label, the “surge.” But the Iraq War is not going to be won by a label–or by the very modest military step that it refers to, either. Indeed, the problem with American policy was never that it chose this or that bad strategy in Iraq but that it planted itself in Iraq at all. Once that was done, all strategies were bad, condemning the United States to stumble from error to error–doing more of the fighting, doing less; attacking Shiites, attacking Sunnis; helping Shiites, helping Sunnis; writing a Constitution, letting “the Iraqis” write a Constitution; disbanding the Baath Party, inviting back the Baathists; letting Kurds opt out of Iraq, dragging them into Iraq. Now, four years into the game, American policy has gone from mistaken to unintelligible–its actions not so much misguided as irrelevant to the ghastly conflict now under way. The killing is real, but Bush’s war is a fantasy.
The President, then, has not bought victory, but he may have bought more time. But for what? One much-mentioned possibility is a wider war, perhaps against Iran. That possibility was explicit in his announcement that he will “interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria,” “seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq” and also deploy Patriot missiles to Gulf allies. The very implausibility of the “surge” as a solution forces us all to ask now what will happen when it fails. When the President said his support of the Maliki government is not “open-ended,” he fanned dovish hopes that his escalation was one last roll of the dice, after which he would order a withdrawal. However, nothing else he said supported that prospect. It was only from the Maliki government, not from the American intervention in Iraq, that Bush withdrew open-ended support. Regarding the war itself, he was still staying the course. “Failure in Iraq would be a disaster for the United States,” he said. And, “for the safety of our people, America must succeed in Iraq.” The new Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, said to the press, “At this pivotal moment, the credibility of the United States is on the line in Iraq.” Nothing in these statements suggested a readiness to withdraw.