President Bush yesterday accused Democrats in Congress of undermining the Iraq war effort by raising questions about how his administration used intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq. This claim, wild on the face of it, is made doubly absurd in the wake of this week's bombings of hotels in Amman, Jordan. Where Bush would have us believe that, "These baseless attacks send the wrong signal to our troops and to an enemy that is questioning America's will," events increasingly demonstrate that the Iraq conflict has entered a phase in which the tenor of American will is largely irrelevant.
Among many tragic facets of the brutal Amman attacks perhaps the most troubling is their provenance- they were planned in and executed from bases in Iraq. The Iraq conflict has thus finally afforded Abu Musab al-Zarqawi an asset he never possessed (or could have acquired) during the reign of Saddam Hussein, a platform in Iraq from which to launch attacks against targets in the broader Middle East. This despite more than two years of Coalition occupation, 220 billion dollars expended, and more than 2000 soldiers killed. If none of these efforts could prevent Zarqawi from achieving the strategic purchase he currently occupies, it is ridiculous to suggest that the griping of a few Congressman can make any difference to how the conflict evolves moving forward.
President Bush's speech is a familiar tactic for his administration, to go on the offensive in the face of criticism. Where this kind of audacity has served them well in the past, it seems ill-considered under the current circumstances. There is little likelihood that the teapot controversy being plumbed by Patrick Fitzgerald and implicating Scooter Libby will brew into anything with the dimensions of Watergate. It can never be proven legally that the administration set out purposely to deceive Congress or the public at large, and the time it would take to even approximate such a case would easily run out before the end of this lame duck presidency. It would thus seem prudent for the President to let this storm blow over rather than roiling the waters by launching an illogical partisan counter-attack.
One reason the President might have chosen this tack is because the administration is contemplating a further long-term extension of the Coalition occupation in Iraq. I give the administration enough credit for political savvy, however, to presume that they know this will not materially change public opinion about the war, as this is the one aspect of the Iraq policy where they have demonstrated clear judgment. The Bush White House knew all along that public support for the Iraq war was soft- this is why they engaged in the kind of political hijinks that have fed Scooter Libby to grand juries and special prosecutors. Whether a crime was committed is a moot point, but what cannot be denied is that the administration made every effort to circumvent a genuine open and critical debate about the Iraq invasion and its potential consequences before going to war. Why was this done? Because all polling showed that the American public was deeply ambivalent about the Iraq invasion, an ambivalency that would have been exacerbated by a clear and open enumeration of the complexities and dangers inherent in the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The administration knew that a long, arduous political process would be required to build a genuine consensus, indeed that if real criticism of the policy's perils entered the political bloodstream support might collapse altogether and the moment to strike might be irredeemably lost. This is why the administration resorted to strong-arm tactics like the "Valerie Plame" outing to quickly quash dissent and preserve the fragile support for the Iraq conflict just long enough to launch the invasion itself, trusting that the quick success of the policy would preclude any close scrutiny of the tactics employed in pushing it to fruition.
The optimism of the Bush White House on the outcome of the conflict has of course been shown false. If US troop levels had receded to the 30,000 soldier occupation force anticipated in Defense Department post-invasion plans there is little doubt that Scooter Libby would never have gotten near a grand jury. Though the administration was completely misguided about the strategic trajectory of the conflict however, its own actions show it was always clear-eyed about the nature of US public opinion. It is thus difficult to imagine that the President's audacious speech yesterday was made in hope of rallying public opinion for a much further extended occupation of Iraq. American patience with the war has bottomed-out, a condition which the Bush administration helped foster by short-circuiting open debate about its dangers and complexities. President Bush can chastise Congress's scrutiny of the justification for war all he likes, but he and his officials know that it is precisely the rhetoric of WMD's and links to Al Qaeda that has left Americans confused and disenchanted with the conflict as it stands now. No amount of punditry or posturing can unring that bell.
So why, then, has the Bush White House chose to launch this attack? One can only hope that a different, more rational motive underlies this rhetoric. The strategic trajectory of the Iraq conflict has clearly moved beyond the control of the US military. At this point, even if we were to double the number of US soldiers in Iraq it is unlikely that the Coalition could dislodge Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his confederates from his base in Iraq, much less quell the other elements of the Iraqi insurgency that are home-grown. Once a constitutionally mandated government is elected in December, the utility of US forces toward the defeat of the insurgency will rapidly move toward the negative spectrum. The intrinsic conditions of Iraqi society do not favor the long-term survival of Zarqawi and his operation on Iraqi soil, if an effective Iraqi authority can emerge from December's election it will likely, over time, dislodge Zarqawi from Iraq. Though US forces will be needed to protect the nascent government as it sets new institutions in place and begins to govern, if the US military presence is not seen to quickly diminish in the wake of its taking power the new Iraqi govnernment will suffer a crippling loss of legitimacy and prestige.
The time is thus now right for a staged withdrawal of US forces to begin. This process will not be a politically pretty one- as US forces withdraw the level of violence will likely increase. Ultimately the Coalition will depart from an Iraq still in the grips of insurgency and civil war, and Zarqawi and his ilk will be able to crow triumphantly that he drove the "infidel" off of Muslim land. Their triumph will not endure, however, as in subsequent months or years, once Iraqis are forced to choose between wholly indigenous options, foreign agitators like Zarqawi will see their base of support erode beneath them.
George W. Bush and his advisors hopefully see this picture or something like it. At the very least one can hope that they see the domestic political prudence of a US withdrawal from Iraq in the face of mid-term elections. This new rhetorical offensive is thus (hopefully) laying the groundwork for that policy shift. Any politically embarrassing sound-bites coming out of Iraq in the midst of a Coalition withdrawal can now be blamed on the Democrats- "Zarqawi would never have remained as powerful as he is were it not for the partisan attacks of Congressional Democrats." As deeply cynical as such a strategy clearly is, if it has been embraced by the Bush administration it is at least a hopeful sign that they intend to move the Iraq policy in a more rational direction.