There are two Iraq-related time bombs ticking downward, each of which will determine the fate of millions caught in the war's cross-hairs. The first is the U.S. public's growing dissatisfaction not only with the war, but with the president himself. The second involves the internal Iraqi dynamic, which all signs suggest is moving in the direction of an expanded civil war. If either of the two, or both, reach their zero point, the U.S. adventure in Iraq is all but doomed.
The problem with President George W. Bush's most recent "new" plan to the win the war is that he has ignored the reality of both of these potentially explosive situations - at great risk. In deciding to escalate the U.S. military presence in order to strengthen what has been shown to be a decidedly sectarian Iraqi government, the President appears to be shortening the fuse on both bombs.
Bush's Wednesday night speech was billed as "the most important of his presidency." This was, at least, the third most important Iraq speech of his tenure - each of which was designed, at the time, to salvage his undertaking in Iraq. However, his long record of failure - in the war, in response to Katrina and elsewhere - has taken a toll. He has increasingly lost the trust of the American people - trust he must have - if they are to support his leadership in what has become an increasingly unpopular war.
If the President's approval rating were in the 60% range and support for the war were severely divided, he might have been able to succeed in pulling off this plan for a surge in troops. But with his approval rating at 35% and support for his leadership in the war at 25%, he appears more like a failed salesman offering rejected goods.
Early reviews make the point. Before the speech, only one third of the public supported an increase in U.S. troop presence, after the speech the percentage of those supporting a surge remained one third, as did the two thirds of the public who still opposed the President's proposals.
Reading polls is the pastime of political leaders, and so it wasn't surprising that not only were Democrats near unanimous in their rejection of the President's proposals, but several leading Republicans were as well. For example, Senator Hagel (R-NE) a possible 2008 Presidential candidate said, "I think this speech given last night by this president represents the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam - if it's carried out. I will resist it." Senator Brownback, also a prospective presidential candidate said, "I do not believe sending more troops to Iraq is the answer...Iraq requires a political rather than a military solution." Equally strong comments came from past supporters of the president like Republican Senators Norm Coleman (MN) and George Voinovich (OH).
There is tragedy here playing out on many levels. This war should not have been fought. Compounding this is the fact that it was entered into without a plan and without any understanding of its inevitable consequences.
Given the mess we've created, the president is right to suggest that it would be criminal and dangerous to just pull up stakes and abandon the Iraqis to an uncertain fate: sectarian civil war can escalate leading to a fractioning of the nation, violent extremism would spread, Iran would be further emboldened and our allies and interests would be compromised. At the same time, it must be recognized that the political process we've mismanaged in that country has not produced a unifying government but, instead, has fed the sectarian divide, spawning a set of governments and militias each with deadly intent. Therefore, calls by the president to the Iraqi government "to step up" - or by some Republicans and Democrats to let the Iraqis "take responsibility" - ignore the dangerous consequences that would ensue.
This is why the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group was so important. The ISG not only offered the Administration a bipartisan consensus lifeline, it also laid out a political track designed to bring regional and international support to the table, thus relieving the U.S. from its unilateral, and in some quarters, unwelcome role. By "cherry-picking" the parts of the ISG reports he liked, while ignoring the political and diplomatic initiatives that were not to his liking, President Bush risks escalating not only the war, but U.S. political opposition to it. There is, therefore, a sad irony in Secretary Rice's efforts to travel to the Middle East this week to sell leaders there on the president's plan, since it appears that that sale job failed in Washington.
The lesson of Vietnam is clear: A U.S.-led war cannot be won or sustained without the support of the American people. By failing to learn that lesson, the president has not only put Iraq at risk, but American leadership in the world and the stability of the entire Middle East.