Bush places his final bet on Iraq

George W. Bush last night announced his “new strategy” for Iraq. His speech consisted of the usual rhetoric about “establishing democracy” and “defeating the terrorists” but particularly a lot of wishful thinking. Like an about to be defeated poker player, US imperialism faces the problem every gambler has when he is losing: if he leaves the table, he won’t be able to win back his losses. But a final bet can prove fatal too.
"Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat." (Sun Tzu, ancient Chinese military strategist)

Imperial overstretch As if the Iraqi people have not suffered enough over the last four years, George W. Bush, President of the United States, last night announced his "new strategy" for Iraq. His 20-minute nationally televised address basically consisted of the usual rhetoric about "establishing democracy" and "defeating the terrorists" but particularly a lot of wishful thinking. He pleaded for more patience from a war-weary nation and admitted that the U.S. strategy had failed, and that the administration had not anticipated the eruption of sectarian violence tearing the Iraqi nation apart.

"The situation in Iraq is unacceptable to the American people, and it is unacceptable to me," Bush said. "Our troops in Iraq have fought bravely. They have done everything we have asked them to do. Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me. It is clear that we need to change our strategy in Iraq."

So far, so good. Finally, the head of the most powerful nation on earth actually admits that mistakes have been made and that the situation in Iraq is "unacceptable". Maybe that is why in November last year the Republicans got such a punishment in the elections. Maybe that is why the majority of Americans are sick of this war that is costing billions and billions of dollars, with no end in sight. Maybe that would bring Mr President to his senses, let him take a deep breath and consider the Iraqi quagmire with a sober head. The latter would be asking too much, of course.

Instead, the U.S. administration has other plans in mind. Under the new plan, the U.S. will increase the number of troops in Iraq, which currently stands at 132,000, by 21,500. The bulk of the new force will be stationed in Baghdad and embedded with Iraqi units while some 4,000 troops will be sent to the western Anbar province to fight Sunni resistance.

Or in Bush's own words:

"The Iraqi government will appoint a military commander and two deputy commanders for their capital. The Iraqi government will deploy Iraqi army and national police brigades across Baghdad's nine districts. When these forces are fully deployed, there will be 18 Iraqi army and national police brigades committed to this effort, along with local police. These Iraqi forces will operate from local police stations; conducting patrols and setting up checkpoints and going door-to-door to gain the trust of Baghdad residents." (our emphasis)

Imagine being stuck with your family in a house somewhere in a poor Baghdad neighbourhood, having suffered for several years in this bloody war. You have seen several family members and friends being killed in front of your eyes. Electricity and water are scarce. Merely going out on the streets can mean the end of your life, so you prefer to stay at home for most of the time. Then all of a sudden these stressed and paranoid U.S. Marines, always weary of attacks on them, together with a dozen Iraqi soldiers storm through the street, smash your front door down and shoot at everything that moves. Would you trust such a person? That is what happened, however, the day before Bush's speech, in North Haifa Street, where 50 people were killed in one raid. That is what "going door-to-door" means in practice.

Interestingly, Bush already hinted in his own speech at the possible escalation of the violence:

"Even if our new strategy works exactly as planned, deadly acts of violence will continue - and we must expect more Iraqi and American casualties. The question is whether our new strategy will bring us closer to success. I believe that it will."

George Bush In other words, the current strategy, even if it works (and that is a big if), won't actually stop the sectarian violence. The past strategy already entailed the bloodbaths of Fallujah and Haditha and the torture in the Abu Ghraib prison. Now Bush cynically proclaims that in the past "there were not enough Iraqi and American troops to secure neighborhoods that had been cleared of terrorists and insurgents, and there were too many restrictions on the troops we did have." Now apparently there is an agreement with the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki that any restrictions on the U.S. troops would be lifted. The gloves are off and the Americans can do as they wish. The only result will be more bloodshed.

Will this strategy work? Mr Bush was quick to reassure the American public:

"Many listening tonight will ask why this effort will succeed when previous operations to secure Baghdad did not. Well, here are the differences: In earlier operations, Iraqi and American forces cleared many neighborhoods of terrorists and insurgents - but when our forces moved on to other targets, the killers returned. This time, we will have the force levels we need to hold the areas that have been cleared. In earlier operations, political and sectarian interference prevented Iraqi and American forces from going into neighborhoods that are home to those fueling the sectarian violence. This time, Iraqi and American forces will have a green light to enter these neighborhoods - and Prime Minister Maliki has pledged that political or sectarian interference will not be tolerated."

The problem for the Americans is that they are starting from a very weak position. Over the last period, it has become abundantly clear that the U.S. strategy in Iraq has failed and that it is only a matter of time before significant parts of the U.S. Army will be forced to withdraw. Nobody of all the different parties sees the United States as a long-term player in Iraq and despite the rhetoric of Messrs Bush & Blair about "remaining until the job is done", it is fair to assume that the serious strategists of the ruling class know that sooner or later they will have to leave the sinking ship. All in all, Iran, Iraq's powerful Shiite neighbour which is heavily intervening in Iraq, is much more relevant to the current crisis than the Americans are. The Sunnis cannot turn to the Americans for protection even if they fear the Iranians and the Shia in their own country. Common sense has it that the mighty army of the United States has failed and is out of options.

Like an about to be defeated poker player, however, US imperialism faces the problem every gambler has when he is losing: if he leaves the table, he won't be able to win back his losses, let alone leave the table lousy with dough. Every gambler whose fate seems to be sealed, faces the temptation of taking his dwindling chips and trying to recoup. After all, maybe it is worth the risk and he could be lucky. That seems to be the rationale of the strategists in the White House. They might well have an eventual withdrawal at the back of their minds but before that humiliation the "one last push" is a temptation that cannot be resisted. We finally know what George W. Bush's strategy for Iraq entails: throw more gasoline on the fire and hope to get away with it. Unfortunately for these ladies and gentlemen, this compulsive gambling strategy of increasing their bets is bound to backfire on them and like any ordinary gamblers they will compound their earlier losses by losing the money for the cab ride home. The ancient Greeks used to call it hubris (pride), and as the saying goes pride goes before a fall.

Of course, US imperialism is left with few alternatives. Withdrawing at this moment would be a historical defeat with possibly greater implications than the Vietnam debacle decades ago. From Bush's point of view, the United States must demonstrate that it does have something up its sleeve and that the president's hands are not tied politically in Washington. Apart from the usual lip service being paid to "democracy" in a bourgeois democracy, only in this way can you explain the utter contempt for democracy in yesterday's decision to increase the number of troops. Isn't it a neat twist on democratic accountability? In last November's midterm elections, Americans sent a clear message by breaking the Republicans' control of the Senate and House of Representatives. They made it clear that they want to end this war. Only a few days ago a USA Today/Gallup poll said Americans oppose the idea of increasing troop levels in Iraq by 61 percent to 36 percent. Yet after all these signals of his own electorate back home and empty promises that he would listen to them, now he is doing the very opposite. This only goes to show how the "battle for democracy" in Iraq has only revealed the collapse of democracy in the U.S. itself.

Operation Suicide

As a cornered animal in mortal danger, it is up to Bush to demonstrate that he can still shape U.S. policy. The ball is in his camp and he needs to show that the United States has the ability to increase forces in Iraq and that it can achieve victories. Only then can the psychology in Iraq and Iran be shifted and will the United States be able to have a say in Iraq's future. Increasing the number of troops in Iraq without being blocked by the lame-duck Democrats could indeed be seen as a moral victory after the Republicans' political defeat back in November. Therefore, let the surge begin.

The problem with this assumption is that in essence it is political in nature. If there is any well thought out plan, then it can only be one with the intent to confound the other political players in the region and to show them that the Americans are still in business. From a military point of view, however, the proposed surge does not make any sense. Obviously, war is only the continuation of politics by other means, but the risk involved in this bet is precisely that the military weaknesses can undermine the potential political benefits.

First of all, we have seen similar operations before. In the summer of last year, Operation Together Forward was launched, the U.S. offensive that was supposed to stem the escalating violence in Baghdad, but which failed to achieve its objectives, as acknowledged in October by some military officers themselves. Catapulting troops into Baghdad is no recipe for success and carries the risk to exacerbate an already out of hand situation. Even an increase of 100,000 troops would be no guarantee. As Napoleon said, the people never rub themselves against naked bayonets. Military operations in an urban environment are difficult and the U.S. troops are confronted by a combination of Sunni resistance, Shiite militias and ordinary criminal gangs. Achieving military success in Baghdad is not likely and can only lead to even more American casualties, the number of which stands now at over 3,000.

Secondly, what are we to understand by the word "surge"? Bush did not mention the word directly in yesterday's speech, but in previous days this infamous word was repeatedly used by Washington officials. A surge implies "quick", but it is hard to see how an extra 21,500 troops in Baghdad can be integrated into the scene of battle any time soon. Moving new troops who are not familiar with the area in a very delicate operation in a city of some 5 million carries all kinds of dangers.

Imperial overstretch

Thirdly and most importantly, the American troops are simply overstretched. The force that has been there since 2003 has always fluctuated between 110,000 and 160,000, and this has meant that the army has had to work with multiple deployments. The new strategy necessarily would increase the duration of several deployments for Army and Marine forces. This comes at a moment when the morale of the troops is already at an all-time low. On top of that in practice there are few reservists available and the National Guard may be a last option. This would only increase the pressure on the American Army in general and would drain its resources.

With this increase in the number of troops in Iraq, Bush has again ignored his military advice as well as the advice from the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan commission co-chaired by James Baker, a former Secretary of State. The Iraq Study Group unanimously recommended troop withdrawals, not an increase in troops.

The Economist comments:

"In deciding to redouble the war effort, Mr Bush now finds himself almost alone. General John Abizaid, the head of Central Command that oversees American strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan, all but rejected the idea of a "surge" of forces two months ago. He told a Senate hearing that raising troop levels by 20,000 would have only a "temporary effect" on security and would delay the day Iraqi forces could take control. Mr Bush has always said he would defer to his military commanders, but this time he did not take their advice. Instead, he dismissed General Abizaid and reshuffled key figures in his Iraq team." (Economist, January 11)

Isolation is indeed the word to be used to describe the President. Many words have been said and written about George W. Bush. He has been described as an idiot, a lunatic, a gangster, and a spineless creature. All of this is true but to look at politics in this narrow way would be to confuse the symptom of an illness with its actual cause. We have argued many times that Bush may not be the most intelligent or competent President the United States has ever had, the point is that he is a reflection of the state of the political scene in the USA and in the final analysis only a representative of the American ruling class.

The ignorance and stupidity of Bush is not the fundamental question. It is all in the nature of the beast called capitalism. This is all the more true in an epoch where on the one hand the big powers need to wage a fierce struggle with each other for markets and spheres of influence. On the other hand the Soviet Union no longer exists so there is no big alternative player in the international chess game. The United States thus have no apparent reason to restrain themselves.

However, the fact that the nature of the present epoch reinforces imperialist arrogance does not mean that it does not matter who leads the ruling class. Bush with his arrogant narrowness is an accurate reflection of the degeneration of the American capitalists who apparently have lost the gift of being able to think ahead. Saying that it does not matter who is at the head of the bourgeoisie would be a very mechanical view of history. It would be the same as saying that it does not matter which leadership the working class has or that class-consciousness is not important for workers. The shortsightedness of the ruling class undoubtedly plays a role, as we see in the present Iraqi quagmire.

Amazingly, at such a delicate point in time, the Americans even decided to open up another front, this time in Somalia. The Guardian newspaper made the following observation:

"Say what you like about George Bush, but no one can accuse him of following the crowd. When everyone from the American electorate to the US military brass, along with a rare consensus of world opinion, cries out with one voice to say "enough" of the war in Iraq, Bush heads in the opposite direction - and decides to escalate. When his army chiefs complain of desperate overstretch in the war on terror, he takes that as his cue to open up another front. And that's just this week."

"On Sunday night the US military launched an air strike - not on Iraq or Afghanistan, but on southern Somalia. Some reports last night claimed that the bombing has continued ever since. If you didn't know that Somalia was on the enemies' list - if you're finding it hard, what with Syria and Iran and North Korea, to keep track of Washington's foes, don't blame yourself. These days the axis of evil is expanding faster than the European Union, with a couple of new members added every January." (Guardian, January 10)

The American bourgeoisie is slowly but steadily destroying all elements of civilisation internationally that have been built up over the last decades and centuries. In Iraq they have destroyed whole cities with their overwhelming firepower, thereby killing hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. The destruction of Fallujah in 2004 was just the start and the torture chambers in Abu Ghraib were only a reflection of the decadence of an empire in crisis.

Robert Fisk in his assessment of Bush's speech quoted Pat Buchanan, the right-wing Republican from the more intelligent section of the American ruling class, who said back in 2003:

"We will soon launch an imperial war on Iraq with all the 'On to Berlin' bravado with which French poilus and British tommies marched in August 1914. But this invasion will not be the cakewalk neoconservatives predict... For a militant Islam that holds in thrall scores of millions of true believers will never accept George Bush dictating the destiny of the Islamic world...

"The one endeavour at which Islamic peoples excel is expelling imperial powers by terror and guerrilla war. They drove the Brits out of Palestine and Aden, the French out of Algeria, the Russians out of Afghanistan, the Americans out of Somalia and Beirut, the Israelis out of Lebanon... We have started up the road to empire and over the next hill we will meet those who went before." (Quoted in The Independent, January 11)

The whole way the U.S. imperialist war machine is behaving around the world can only be compared to the movements of a bull in a china shop. These narrow-minded so-called "strategists", who are in reality ordinary hillbillies put in a position of power, are provoking profound crises that have serious destabilising effects all over the world. They have learnt nothing from history and, from their class point of view, are steadily undermining the relative social stability of the Cold War period after the Second World War. They are going back to the wild capitalism of the 19th century, which also means they are inevitably pushing society in the direction of the raw class struggle of the 19th century. A section of the bourgeoisie - for example the financial guru George Soros, who financed an anti-Bush campaign - sees with sorrow how the White House is provoking revolts all over the world. The only factor holding back the full development of the class struggle is the arch-conservative leadership of the working class, in the trade unions and the social-democratic parties. But the more they are pushing the lid down, the more steam is building up. And the United States are no exception to that.


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