Courting trouble to buy votes

It would appear that the Bush administration has concluded, somewhat belatedly, that US forces are incapable of bringing the security situation in Iraq under control and are powerless to prevent the daily increase in the number and severity of attacks. For the administration problems with its Iraqi policy are compounded by the fact that next year’s presidential elections are effectively already underway and, however many fingers are being crossed in the White House, what happens in Iraq cannot help but determine the outcome.

Bush’s priority — the priority of all incumbent presidents — is to get himself re- elected. To help further this goal he will attempt to choose from among the available alternatives the one that offers the best prospects for resolving the Iraqi crisis in a manner that will enhance his popularity ratings. The problem, though, is that just as his administration has begun to sense the risks involved in persisting in its current policy it has also realised the dangerous lack of available alternatives. Which leaves Bush in a double-bind. In his determination to get re- elected he may feel compelled to opt for a course of action that will strategically impair Washington’s ability to secure a decisive victory in the war in Iraq. And should this happen, the American public may well conclude that they have a president who will do anything just to hang on to power.

Amid such uncertainty one things seems clear: Bush will only be able to win the forthcoming presidential elections and the war in Iraq if he succeeds in bringing US forces back home before next November after having established a government in Iraq that is both loyal to the US and capable of keeping security under control. From current perspectives, the likelihood of achieving the necessary double is next to zero.

A hasty withdrawal of US forces from Iraq will result in the establishment of a government in Baghdad hostile to the US, or else precipitate civil war. In both instances the US will have lost the war and Bush will fail to get re-elected. But if Washington is to successfully instal an Iraqi government loyal to the US and capable of securing the country its troops must remain in Iraq far beyond the timetable dictated by electoral campaign schedules.

Bush and his adviser must spend sleepless nights listening to the ticking of the clock for the longer US forces remain in Iraq then the higher the casualties. And as the death toll increases, so Bush’s electoral chances decrease. It is interesting to note, in this regard, that the Iraqi resistance has recently concentrated its attacks against non-US forces in Iraq in an attempt to deter other nations from committing forces that might alleviate the burden on American troops.

As the pressure mounts the current US administration is faced with two alternatives. The first is to transfer power to an interim Iraqi government with wide-ranging powers, including maintaining security. This would allow US troops to leave residential districts and re-deploy in fortified positions away from the cities, reducing the risk of attack. The second alternative would be to manipulate circumstances in such a way as to precipitate a conflict with Iran or Syria, and then rely on the American people standing behind their president in such a crisis. The White House, for the time being at least, appears to have opted for the first alternative. We should not, however, discount a switch to the second.

Last week Bush recalled Paul Bremer to Washington for consultations. Following the visit administration officials issued several statements indicating that Washington was seriously examining ways to transfer power to an interim Iraqi government before the end of next year, i.e. before the November 2004 elections. Spurred on by the growing success of the Iraqi resistance Washington is seeking to change its plans for Iraq and appears now to accept a clear timetable for democratic elections and the transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqi people, something it rejected less than a month ago when pressed by other permanent members of the Security Council.

Unfortunately there is a vast difference between declarations of intent and Washington’s ability to act on them. Any interim government in Iraq will face an enormous problem since its success in establishing sufficient authority to allow US forces to withdraw to safer positions will be dependent on its independence from the occupying forces. Such autonomy can only be achieved by setting in motion a political process, under UN supervision, capable of leading to the formation of an interim government, the drafting of a constitution and the holding of democratic elections. Yet this remains precisely the course most opposed by Washington’s hawks.

What lies behind Washington’s declared intentions, then, is less a desire to placate Iraq than to domesticate the conflict set in motion by the invasion and subsequent occupation. The US administration is seeking to transform the conflict into an Iraqi-Iraqi war in which Washington will support one of the two sides . The transfer of power US officials trail will be purely cosmetic. It entails no more than a temporary mandate for some Iraqi factions to fight the war on America’s behalf. Once the presidential elections are over the US will once again take up the reins until it succeeds in engineering the kind of Iraq it wants, i.e. a country that has been effectively severed from its Arab and Islamic identity and thoroughly infiltrated by Israel.

The chances of such a plan succeeding are remote. The capacity of any temporary government installed in Baghdad making rapid decisions and then implementing them requires a heavily centralised and non- sectarian administration. Yet the Iraqi army, security services and police have all been disbanded; to reconstruct them on models that will satisfy Washington’s ideological criteria will take years. It certainly cannot be accomplished by November. Nor does it seem that there is the remotest possibility of the occupation authorities creating a non- sectarian government acceptable to all. Any interim Iraqi government the US creates will, therefore, have to depend almost entirely on the direct support of US forces which, in turn, will weaken its credibility, isolate it and encourage attempts to topple it. Meanwhile, US forces directly involved in operations against the resistance behind the façade of an Iraqi government will remain vulnerable to attack.

Bush, then, will find himself back at square one. As the election campaign heats up he will face a barrage of criticism, and questions over the ever more elusive weapons of mass destruction and the real reasons he risked the lives of American troops in Iraq. Under such circumstances the administration in Washington might opt for a more aggressive way out of its domestic predicaments. The temptation to concoct a crisis with Iran and/or Syria could then be overwhelming.

Let us not forget that the current US administration is ruthlessly pragmatic. With an irredeemably ultraconservative stamp it espouses views that certainly border on intolerance and racism. Indeed, in terms of its motives, philosophical premises and tenacity it is not that different from earlier Fascist or Stalinist administrations.

Nor are democratic institutions, especially in times of crisis, immune to subversion. This has happened frequently in the past and it would be foolhardy to assume that the US is somehow exempt from history. Democratic societies that can produce the likes of Hitler, Mussolini, Sharon and George W Bush are societies that can be anaesthetised into compliance if the right patriotic, nationalist or ethnocentric buttons are pressed. This is precisely what occurred in the US in the wake of 11 September. Bush, who barely scraped into the Oval Office on the strength of a recount became a national hero overnight when some 85 per cent of the American people began cheering him while in the throes of a collective coma from which they have not entirely recovered.

Israel, we should also remember, has now become a full partner in the US decision- making process, a position it has secured not only on the basis of mutual security interests but also, and more dangerously, for ideological reasons. Pro-Israeli forces were the most vociferous advocates of the invasion of Iraq. They will be equally vociferous in advocating regime change in Iran, viewing it as an indispensable first step towards the elimination of Hizbullah, Hamas and Jihad, and the eventual redrawing of the regional map.

We cannot, then, rule out the possibility that Washington’s ultraconservatives will target Tehran. Knowing that any strike against Iran would be foolhardy may well not be enough to deter such an ideologically driven course that, they hope, will have the added benefit of rallying public opinion around the American flag. Hitler, after all, rushed headlong into the Soviet Union fully aware of the potentially disastrous consequences.