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Bush's Crisis: Articulating a Strategy in Iraq and the Wider War

Thursday, April 15, 2004 - 18:27 Print Text Size

It is clear that the current crisis in Iraq was not expected by the Bush administration. That in itself ought not to be a problem. Even the most successful war is filled with unexpected and unpleasant surprises. D-Day in Normandy was completely fouled up; the German Ardennes offensive caught the Allies by surprise. No war goes as expected. However, in order to recover from the unexpected, it is necessary to have a clear strategic framework from which you are operating. This means a clearly understood concept of how the pieces of the war fit together — a concept that can be clearly articulated to both the military and the public. Without a framework that defines where you are going, you can never figure out where you are. It becomes impossible to place the unexpected in an understandable context, and it becomes impossible to build trust among the political leadership, the military and the nation. This is why the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam was unmanageable — yet the Ardennes offensive of 1944-1945 was readily managed.

In a January 2003 piece titled "Smoke and Mirrors: The United States, Iraq and Deception", we commented on the core of the coming Iraq campaign, which was that the public justification for the war (weapons of mass destruction) and the strategic purpose of the war (a step in redefining regional geopolitics) were at odds. We argued that: "In a war that will last for years, maintaining one's conceptual footing is critical. If that footing cannot be maintained — if the requirements of the war and the requirements of strategic clarity are incompatible — there are more serious issues involved than the future of Iraq."

During President George W. Bush's press conference this week, that passage came to mind again. The press conference focused on what has become the new justification for the war — bringing Western-style democracy to Iraq. A subsidiary theme was that Iraq had been a potential threat to the United States because it "coddled" terrorists. Mounting a multidivisional assault on a fairly large nation for these reasons might be superficially convincing, but they could not be the main reasons for invasion — and they weren't. We will not repeat what we regard as the main line of reasoning behind the invasion, because our readers are fully familiar with our read of the situation. We will merely reassert that the real reason — the capture of the most strategic country in the region in order to exert pressure on regimes that were in some way enablers of al Qaeda — was more plausible, persuasive and defensible than the various public explanations, from links to al Qaeda to WMD to bringing democracy to the Iraqi masses. Such logic might work when it comes to sending a few Marines on a temporary mission to Haiti, but not for sending more than 130,000 troops to Iraq for an open-ended commitment.

Answers and Platitudes

Bush's inability and/or unwillingness to articulate a coherent strategic justification for the Iraq campaign — one that integrates the campaign with the general war on Islamists that began Sept. 11 — is at the root of his political crisis right now. If the primary purpose of the U.S. invasion of Iraq was to bring democracy to Iraq, then enduring the pain of the current crisis will make little sense to the American public. Taken in isolation, bringing democracy to Iraq may be a worthy goal, but not one taking moral precedence over bringing democracy to several dozen other countries — and certainly not a project worth the sacrifices now being made necessary.

If, on the other hand, the invasion was an integral part of the war that began Sept. 11, then Bush will generate public support for it. The problem that Bush has — and it showed itself vividly in his press conference — is that he and the rest of his administration are simply unable to embed Iraq in the general strategy of the broader war. Bush asserts that it is part of that war, but then uses the specific justification of bringing democracy to Iraq as his rationale. Unless you want to argue that democratizing Iraq — assuming that is possible — has strategic implications more significant than democratizing other countries, the explanation doesn't work. The explanation that does work — that the invasion of Iraq was a stepping-stone toward changes in behavior in other countries of the region — is never given.

We therefore wind up with an explanation that is only superficially plausible, and a price that appears to be excessive, given the stated goal. The president and his administration do not seem willing to provide a coherent explanation of the strategy behind the Iraq campaign. What was the United States hoping to achieve when it invaded Iraq, and what is it defending now? There are good answers to these questions, but Bush stays with platitudes.

This is not only odd, but also it has substantial political implications for Bush and the United States. First, by providing no coherent answer, he leaves himself open to critics who are ascribing motives to his policy — everything from controlling the world's oil supply, to the familial passion to destroy Saddam Hussein, to a Jewish world conspiracy. The Bush administration, having created an intellectual vacuum, can't complain when others, trying to understand what the administration is doing, gin up these theories. The administration has asked for it.

There is an even more important dimension to this. The single most important thing that happened during the recent offensive in Iraq was that the United States entered into negotiations for the first time with the Sunni guerrillas in Al Fallujah. The United States has now traveled a path that began with Donald Rumsfeld's dismissing the guerrillas as a disorganized band of dead-enders and led to the belief (shared by us) that they had been fairly defeated in December 2003 — and now to negotiations that were initiated by the United States. The negotiations began with a simple, limited cease-fire and have extended to a longer, more open-ended truce.

The United States is facing the fact that the Sunni guerrillas have not only not been defeated, but that they are sufficiently well organized and supported by the broader Sunni population that negotiations are possible with them. There is an organized Sunni command authority that planned and executed this operation and is now weighing U.S. offers on a truce. That is a huge change in the U.S. perception of the Sunni guerrillas. Negotiations are also something that the administration would never have contemplated two weeks ago, regardless of how limited the topic might be. The idea that the United States needed to negotiate anything was unthinkable.

This is not the only negotiation going on at the moment. There are negotiations with the Muqtada al-Sadr group. Negotiations with the Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani group. Discussions with the Iranians. Iraq is swirling with negotiations, offers, bluffs, double crosses and lies. It is quite a circus at the moment, with at least three major players (the Sunnis, the Shia, the United States) who are in turn fragmented in all sorts of fascinating ways — and this doesn't even begin to include the Kurds and other minorities.

Making Alliances

The United States is going to have to make alliances. Its core alliance with the majority Shia has to be redefined in the wake of al-Sadr's uprising. Even if al-Sadr is destroyed with his militia, the United States and the Shia will have much to talk about. Far more important, the United States is now talking to the Sunni guerrillas. That might or might not lead anywhere, but it is vitally important to all sides, no matter what comes of it. The United States has recognized that the Sunni enemy is a competent authority in some sense — and that changes everything.

The United States will combine military action with political maneuvering. That is logical and inevitable in this sort of war. But as deals are cut with a variety of players, how will Bush's argument that the United States is building democracy in Iraq fly? The United States will be building coalitions. Whether it is a democracy is another matter. Indeed, it was al-Sistani demanding elections (which he knew the Shia would win) and the president putting off elections — declaring at the press conference that he would not bend to Shiite demands on a timetable.

The problem that Bush has created is that there is no conceptual framework in which to understand these maneuvers. Building democracy in Iraq is not really compatible with the deals that are going to have to be cut. It is not that cutting deals is a bad idea. It is not that the current crisis cannot be overcome with a combination of political and military action. The problem is that no one will know how the United States is doing, because it has not defined a conceptual framework for what it is trying to accomplish in Iraq — or how Iraq fits into the war on the jihadists.

Bush Political Crisis

This is creating a massive political crisis for Bush domestically. The public knows there is a crisis in Iraq, but there is little understanding of how to judge whether the crisis is being managed. If the only criterion is the creation of democracy, that is not only a distant goal, but also one that will be undermined by necessary U.S. deal-making. Democracy — by any definition that the American public can recognize — is not coming to Iraq anytime soon. If that is the mark of success, Bush's only hope is that he won't be kept to a tight timetable. What is worse for Bush is that, in his news conference, he framed the coming presidential election as basically a referendum on his policy in Iraq. The less that policy is understood, and the more Iraq appears uncontrollable, the more vulnerable Bush will be to charges that the Iraq war was unjustified, and that it is a distraction from the wider war — which the American electorate better understands and widely supports.

He is facing John Kerry, who has shrewdly chosen to call neither for a withdrawal from Iraq nor for an end to the war on the Islamist world. Kerry's enormous advantage is that he can articulate a strategy without having to take responsibility for anything in the past. He can therefore argue that Bush's impulses were correct, but that he lacked a systematic strategy. STRATFOR said in its annual forecast that the election was Bush's to lose. We now have to say that he is making an outstanding attempt to lose it.

Obviously, the administration has a strategy in Iraq and the Islamic world. It is a strategy that is discussed inside the administration and is clearly visible outside. Obviously, there will be military and political reversals. The strategy and the reversals are far more understandable than the decisions the Bush administration has made in presenting them. It has adopted a two-tier policy: a complex and nearly hidden strategic plan and a superficial public presentation.

It could be argued that in a democratic society like the United States, it is impossible to lay bare the cold-blooded reasoning behind a war, and that the war needs to be presented in a palatable fashion. This might be true — and there are examples of both approaches in American history — but we tend to think that in the face of Sept. 11, only a cold-blooded plan, whose outlines are publicly presented and accepted, can work. We could be wrong, but on this we have no doubt. Even if the administration is correct in its assumption that there must be a two-tier approach to the public presentation of the war, it has done a terrible job in articulating its public justification.

The administration has held only three press conferences. Some explain this by saying that the president is too inarticulate to withstand public grilling. We don't buy that. He is not the greatest orator by any means, but he doesn't do that badly. His problem is that he will not engage on the core strategic question. Franklin Roosevelt, our best wartime president bar none — who should be the model for any wartime president — spoke on and off the record with reporters, continually and with shocking frankness when we look back on it. He did not hesitate to discuss strategy — from Germany First to relations with Joseph Stalin. He filled the public space with detail and managed public expectations brilliantly, even during the terrible first six months of the war.

We are convinced that the Bush administration has a defensible strategy. It is not a simple one and not one that can be made completely public, but it is a defensible strategy. If President Bush decides not to articulate it, it will be interesting to see whether President Kerry does, because we are convinced that if Bush keeps going in the direction he is going, he will lose the election. The president's public presentation of the war is designed to exploit success, not to withstand reversals and hardships. What is fascinating is that political operatives like Karl Rove, the president's political adviser, can't seem to get their arms around this simple fact: The current communications strategy is not working. They seem frozen in place, seemingly hoping that something will turn up. We doubt strongly that building democracy in Iraq is the cry that will rally the American nation.

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