Published in the Guardian/UK, Saturday, October 21, 2006
The genteel revolt that is remaking US policy on Iraq
Republican veterans push for end to interventionist approach
Julian Borger in Washington
A "polite rebellion" is under way among previously loyal allies of President Bush aimed at persuading him to change course in Iraq and quietly abandon the foreign policy doctrine he had hoped would be the centrepiece of his legacy.
Many senior Republicans believe the "Bush Doctrine" has hit a wall in Iraq and lies in ruins. The rebels, including many foreign policy veterans close to the president's father, see it as an obstacle to stabilising Iraq and extricating US forces. But they have decided that earlier, head-on challenges have only deepened the president's resolve, and a less confrontational approach was needed that avoided blame for past mistakes if there was to be any hope of a fundamental rethink.
"It's a polite rebellion by moderate and military-minded Republicans," said Steven Clemons, a Washington analyst. "Any walk-away from the Bush line is going to be covered with a lot of cosmetics to make it look like it's not really a big change."
The focus of the new approach is the Iraq Study Group (ISG), a bipartisan commission co-chaired by the first President Bush's secretary of state, James Baker, which will present its recommendations after the November elections.
Those elections are another reason for urgency. If the Democrats capture the House of Representatives, as expected, they will be in a position to cut funding for the war if they are not listened to. Even if they fall short of an absolute majority in the Senate, there are now Republican senators signalling that they could side with the opposition if there is not a decisive rethink on Iraq. David Mack, a diplomat in the first Bush administration who helped rally Arab support for the Gulf War, said: "We are really at a point where any talk of victory is an illusion."
Mr Mack, who served as a consultant to the ISG, said he was expressing personal opinions that did not necessarily reflect the views of the panel, whose work is still classified. He insisted the Bush administration would have to redefine victory. It would have to give up its rhetoric about spreading democracy, as well as its aversion to talking to Syria or Iran - both central planks of the Bush Doctrine, which emphasises the muscular use of US power to isolate enemy "rogue regimes".
Success might then be achieved in the form of "an orderly exit from the country that doesn't make a bad situation worse".
Those involved with the Baker commission hope that its recommendations, coming from friends and camouflaged as tactical tweaks, could offer President Bush a face-saving way out of the current bloody impasse. But they concede there is no guarantee of a decisive change.
There is no consensus on the way out of Iraq among the president's critics while resistance to change is entrenched and led by Vice-President Dick Cheney."I know what the president thinks. I know what I think. And we're not looking for an exit strategy. We're looking for victory," Mr Cheney told Time magazine.
The counter-attack by Republican "realists" has been led by close confidants of George Bush Sr, injecting the generational tensions of a powerful dynasty into an already heated debate. "A future Shakespeare will have a lot to write about," a former official from the first Bush administration now working with the Baker commission, noted this week.
There have been Republican rebellions against the administration's Iraq policy before but they have failed to exert any influence. The rebels' open questioning of the rationale for the war was regarded as disloyal and they were quickly excluded from White House discussions.
By contrast, Mr Baker's loyalty had hitherto been unquestioned. He is a fellow Texan, and has long been the Bush family's fixer. He has abstained from second-guessing the decision to go to war, despite recent intense questioning, and played a role in drumming up foreign contributions to fund Iraqi development. He personally asked the president's permission before agreeing to chair the ISG.
Mr Clemons said Mr Baker was seeking to "provide camouflage for changing direction". Nervousness about the death toll in Iraq and worries about a debacle at the polls in November have led other former loyalists to break ranks in recent days, including Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, another Texan conservative, who said this week that she was willing to contemplate Iraq's partition, an idea dismissed by the White House as a "nonstarter".
Perhaps the most worrying development for the Bush team is the public loss of faith expressed by a powerful Republican loyalist, Senator John Warner, the head of the armed services committee with very close links to the military.
Senator Warner was instrumental in the creation of the ISG and is its most senior sponsor. He returned from his eighth trip to Iraq earlier this month and declared the situation was "markedly different" from earlier visits. It was a "very serious situation" that was "simply drifting sideways".
In the next few months, he warned the administration would have to ask itself: "Is there a change of course that we should take?"
The cautiousness with which this rebellion is proceeding is influenced not just by anxiety over alienating the president and entrenching resistance from Mr Cheney. It is also informed by an awareness that there are no good options left on the table.
The eight options: what Washington and London are discussing
1 British out now
One of the British diplomats involved in talks on Iraq policy said the UK, which has responsibility for the south of Iraq, "could go tomorrow almost ... It would not look pretty, but it is doable".
Against British diplomats pinpoint three problems if the UK was to pull out immediately. One would be political: the US would not welcome being left virtually alone. The second is military: the US would no longer have a dependable force in the south. The third is security: without British forces in place, fighting between the various militia groups and the criminal gangs in Basra and elsewhere would intensify.
For The British presence is part of the problem. If Basra, Amara and other places were to disintegrate after British forces leave, the FCO hopes Shia religious leaders and Iran, which has influence over the Shia, could quickly establish stability.
Likelihood Not being seriously considered yet. Halving British forces next summer, with further reductions later on, is still the likeliest outcome.
2 US coalition out now
"We could pull out now and leave them to their fate," a Foreign Office official said. "But the place could implode." The advantage of this option would be to cut short the agony.
Against A premature pull-out could precipitate an even more ferocious civil war. Faced with world outrage over the level of human rights abuses and carnage, the US might then have to consider going back in circumstances even worse than before.
For The presence of US forces is making things worse. The insurgency would lose its patriotic justification. A pull-out might force the Iraqi parties and security forces to work together or face a descent into anarchy.
Likelihood Such an early exit is unlikely. It would be an unpalatable humiliation for the Bush administration and most of its critics agree that a hasty withdrawal could ultimately oblige the troops to go back.
3 Phased withdrawal
This is the present policy, but any pull-out is contingent on Iraq developing its own security forces. But there are increasing calls in Washington and London for a timetable. A Foreign Office official said: "The date might possibly have to be secret." Otherwise it could encourage insurgents to step up attacks. During this stage, the US could pour in money for employment programmes.
Against The risk of agreeing a secret date with the Iraqi government is that, as with much else in Iraq, the date would probably leak out anyway.
For The prospect of the removal of its security blanket might force the Iraqi government to face up to the many issues it ignores at present, such as the rise in sectarian violence. It also allows more time for training the Iraqi army and trying to train and reform the police force, a policy that has so far proved to be slower than coalition forces had hoped.
Likelihood Still the likeliest option.
4 Talk to Iran and Syria
There appears to have been virtual consensus in the Baker commission for talks with Iraq's two most difficult neighbours on the grounds that they must ultimately want stability but will not pursue it while excluded from negotiations. The FCO, which has an embassy in Tehran, is pushing for engagement too.
Against Iran and Syria could make demands in return for help that the Bush administration would find hard to accept. Iran would, at a minimum, demand that the US stop calling for regime change. Syria could urge the US to put pressure on Israel to return the Golan Heights, lost in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. There is some question over whether either country could stop sectarian killings.
For Whatever the limitations of their influence, the bloodshed is only likely to worsen until they are brought on board.
Likelihood There may be too much resistance in the Bush administration to direct talks, but the US could well give the nod to negotiations between a sovereign Iraq and its powerful neighbours.
5 Iraqi strongman
The US and British governments have been disappointed so far with Nuri al-Maliki, Iraq's elected prime minister who took over earlier this year, mainly over the reluctance of his Shia-dominated coalition to tackle Shia death squads. Washington and London could press for his replacement with a strongman at the head of a junta, such as Ayad Allawi, the interim prime minister from 2004-05 - and roll back democracy.
Against Ousting a democratic government, with its carefully crafted constitution, would amount to a scandalous policy failure. "I do not see that as an option for western democracies," a British official said. Allawi is treated with suspicion by religious Shias because he is secular and detested by Sunnis because he presided over the attack on Falluja.
For Only a strong, secular Iraqi leader could break the sectarian deadlock and broker the kind of compromises over oil and regional autonomy that are essential to prevent civil war and keep the country together.
Likelihood Not likely.
6 Break-up of Iraq
Iraq is moving towards a federal model that could result in its break-up. The Kurdish area to the north is virtually autonomous anyway. The Shia-dominated area stretching from Basra in the south to the holy cities of Kerbala and Najaf further north could form another bloc, leaving the Sunnis with much of the west and centre - mostly oil-free desert. Advocates of such partition talk about using coalition forces to escort minority populations across the ethnic divides to streamline the partition and working out a fair revenue-sharing formula for oil.
Against The break-up would leave a power vacuum in the region, which Iran, Syria and Turkey could exploit. The partition of Iraq would not be easy. Baghdad, which has huge Sunni and Shia communities, could explode.
For The sectarian killings are creating de facto partition. Military escorts for civilians displaced by the violence would at least reduce the death toll.
Likelihood Events on the ground may make it inevitable.
7 Redeploy & contain
There are two variations. One is for US forces to leave populated areas and retreat to "super-bases" in the desert from where they could support Iraqi forces - something the army has already begun. An alternative would be for the US forces to move out of Iraq altogether and use bases in nearby countries.
Against "Super-bases could be the worst of both worlds," argues Larry Diamond, a former adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority. The troops would be too cut off from the streets to have much impact, but they would remain foreign occupiers. It could be difficult to persuade other Arab countries to provide bases, and once out, it will be harder going back. It could also be perceived as cutting and running.
For US forces would no longer be in the firing line and with them gone, the motivation for many of the insurgents might evaporate. They would still be at hand to prop up the elected government.
Likelihood Quite possible in the short term as the US tries to stem its casualties, but unlikely as a lasting solution.
8 One last push
This would involve an increase of troops in the short term in the hope of creating sufficient security to deliver economic gains and create confidence in the Iraqi government. This roughly is Senator John McCain's preferred option, but might also appeal to Mr Bush as it would not immediately require a policy U-turn.
Against It might be too late to curb the escalating violence and it would be politically unpalatable at home. It could leave even more US forces stuck in the middle of a civil war.
For Military experts have long said there are not enough coalition forces in Iraq to seal the borders against infiltration and stamp out sectarian killings. It would be a sign of backing for the Baghdad government and would force sectarian leaders to take it more seriously.
Likelihood A final gamble by Mr Bush is not to be discounted. Senator McCain is a presidential frontrunner for 2008, but by then Iraq may look very different.
Special report: Iraq
The trial of Saddam Hussein
Britain and Iraq
In memoriam: 100 British troops killed in Iraq
Special report: UK politics and Iraq
January 1 2005 - present
Feb 1 2004 - 31 Dec 2004
July 16 1979 - Jan 31 2004
More click-through graphics on Iraq
Full text of speeches and documents
Audio reports on Iraq
Provisional authority: rebuilding Iraq
Link to online story.
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- Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.