An unstable marriage

An unstable marriage

George Bush has done his critics a new favour. Just when the Iraq issue was in danger of receding from the increasingly frenetic US primary campaign, his effort to formalise a long-term occupation of Iraq has re-ignited the issue and re-emboldened the Democrats.

The much-trumpeted success of the “surge” and General David Petraeus”s skilful arguments with Congress had temporarily put the Democrats on the back foot.

Now Bush has fired them up again and Iraq is back on the political agenda. His plan for a new security agreement with the government in Baghdad which would authorise US combat operations for the indefinite future not only reinforces the image of the Iraq government as colonial dependents. It would tie the hands of Bush”s successor in the White House. No wonder the Democrats are angry. Add to that the president”s latest claim that in Iraq he has won a victory for the world – a boast which he will presumably repeat in his last State of the Union address next week. .

This week”s blogfest about Iraq on Cif, with its hundreds of diverse postings, shows how unpersuaded most people are by Bush”s claim of victory accomplished or the only slightly less brash claim of victory approaching, made on CiF by Oliver Kamm. Douglas Hurd, a former British foreign secretary, pointed out succinctly that the surge of 30,000 extra US troops “coincided with a truce between Shia militias, a reaction of Sunnis against the brutality of al-Qaida and possibly a slackening of Iranian interference”. These factors are as much responsible for the welcome drop in Iraqi civilian casualties as anything Petraeus has done. Others have pointed out that paying $300 stipends to Sunni militiamen is a Pentagon investment which could yet backfire.

The bigger issue is the fact that, surge or no surge, the Bush administration has suffered a huge political defeat in Iraq. The neocons invaded for a variety of reasons. One was the hope of establishing a stable, secular, pro-western regime in Iraq. This has not happened. Another was to project a revived image of US power in the Middle East and the Gulf. In his blog this week Michael Clarke, the director of the Royal United Services Institute, accurately wrote that “in undertaking the invasion of Iraq, the US and its British allies knowingly took on the whole region”. The result is the opposite of what they wanted. They have accelerated the perception that US power is in decline. Bush”s recent flip round the Arab states of the Gulf and his return home empty-handed helped to confirm that.

In Britain, this week”s debate on Cif coincided with another in the House of Lords in which a majority of speakers called for an inquiry into the UK government”s pre-war discussions. They wanted to know what went wrong and why. They did not get the promise of a date but Mark Malloch Brown, a government minister, for the first time conceded the principle, saying it was no longer whether but when. Some speakers were alarmed at the revelations in my new book that the Arabists of the Foreign Office and MI6 appear not to have adequately anticipated the invasion”s consequences – the emergence of nationalist resistance, the electoral victory of Islamist parties, and the rejection by most Iraqis of an open-ended occupation.

Which brings us back to Bush”s latest effort not just to maintain the occupation until he leaves office, but to force his successor to keep it going indefinitely. Whether he can get the Democratic Congress to accept that remains to be seen. Ironically, he will have less trouble in the Green Zone. He can probably persuade the current Iraqi government to sign up to something on these lines.

The paradox of Baghdad is that a sectarian Shia-dominated and fundamentally anti-western government is umbilically linked to a US occupation because its members now feel so identified with the Bush project that their lives would be at severe risk if and when the Americans leave. Never was a political marriage less stable, or more cynical.

Meanwhile, on the ground, the ultimate defeat for Bush and those who went to war alongside him is that polls show a majority of Iraqis want his troops to leave.