George W. Bush doesn't have much reputation left to protect, but he's attempting to salvage some shreds of credibility with his surge initiative in Iraq. According to the latest reports from the civil-war zone, the addition of tens of thousands of US has caused the level of violence to diminish. A recent Pew Research Poll found that roughly half of the public (48 percent) believe the military effort is "going well or fairly well." Has the situation in Iraq really turned around or has the surge merely postponed the messy end of the conflict until after Dubya leaves office?
There are approximately 162,000 American troops in Iraq, up from 130,000 a year ago, and their role has changed: they've replaced the Iraqi police force. In many areas, particularly large cities such as Baghdad, it's our troops who now patrol the streets, because Iraqis don't trust their own cops. In addition, the US is arming Sunni insurgents if they agree to hunt down Al Qaeda fighters. And, Baghdad has been partitioned into ethnic zones where walls have been built around neighborhoods.
There has never been any doubt that if the US injected enough troops into Iraq the civil war would abate; the real question is whether a US-imposed truce will endure. Sadly, indications are that it won't. A recent New Yorker article described day-to-day life in a Joint Security Station in the Baghdad suburb of Ghazaliya. The writer, Jon Lee Anderson, described a mixed situation: ethnic killings are down as are IED attacks; on the other hand, the locals still do not trust the national police and Sunni leaders appear to be preparing to attack nearby Shias once the American leave. Andersen concluded, "Iraq's future, for the moment, is in limbo. The best one can say, perhaps, is that the U.S. has bought or borrowed a little space to work with."
The Bush Administration argues an improvement in the security situation will inevitably lead to political stability. But, there is little evidence of these positive political changes. The Iraqi government has yet to achieve any of the political objectives that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki delineated a year ago. As a result, the White House downplays the lack of political progress.
Despite the reduction in violence, the latest Pew Poll indicates American sentiments about the Iraq have hardened: 54 percent of the public want our troops brought home "as soon as possible," a majority that hasn't changed much in six months. Nonetheless, on November 26th the President and al-Maliki signed a Declaration of Principles that defines a long-term US commitment to Iraq and appears to take the side of the al-Maliki Shiites in the civil war. Not only does this Bush action fly in the face of public opinion, it fails to recognize that the al-Maliki regime is part of the problem. Reporting from Iraq, on November 15th, Washington Post military writer Thomas Ricks noted: "Senior military commanders here now portray the intransigence of Iraq's Shiite-dominated government as the key threat facing the U.S. effort in Iraq, rather than Al Qaeda terrorists, Sunni insurgents or Iranian-backed militias."
President Bush's rationale continues to be that the US needs to fight terrorists in Iraq rather than fight them here. Most Americans would support the war if we were certain that our protracted presence in Iraq would insure there would not be another terrorist attack on America. Unfortunately, what we have learned about the US involvement in Iraq suggests that it is counter-productive: more likely to provoke another attack rather than prevent it. Experts tell us that rather than stifle Al Qaeda the occupation of Iraq has encouraged it by bringing new converts to terrorism. And, the US focus on Iraq has meant that the Al Qaeda infrastructure has reconstituted itself along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and created dangerous political instability in the region.
Moreover, the US involvement in Iraq has had a dreadful cost: 3878 Americans killed and roughly 38,000 wounded, with an equal number victim of "non-hostile causes." The occupation costs $2 Billion per week and it's estimated that the the total war cost could exceed $2 Trillion. Meanwhile, over the past few months, the White House has informed the American public that we don't have money for domestic programs such as health insurance for poor kids; all our "discretionary" funds must be spent on the war in Iraq.
Perhaps the surge has reduced the level of violence in Iraq. That's a good thing. But it's not a sufficient reason to prolong the occupation. America can't afford to throw good money after bad. We can't afford to sustain a troop surge solely to protect George Bush's reputation, so he can claim, "I didn't lose the war."