Bush’s Iraq Gamble

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

March 1, 2007

We should probably be accustomed by now to President George W. Bush upping the ante when he faces a difficult challenge. Whether on the issue of tax cuts, invading Iraq, or asserting new interpretations of presidential authority, the man does not fold his cards when the going gets tough—he doubles his bet. Yet even after six years of a presidency full of bold, risky decisions, it was hard not to be stunned by the audacity Bush displayed in his prime-time Iraq speech of January 10 2007.With just 31 percent of Americans approving of his Iraq policy, the Iraq Study Group (ISG) proposing a withdrawal of US combat forces by 2008, and a newly elected Democratic Congress clamouring for ‘phased redeployment’, Bush came forward with his own plan: a new set of generals and 21,500 more troops.

Whatever one thinks of the strategic logic of the troop increase—and there are plenty of reasons not to think much of it at all—the political logic is actually rather compelling. For Bush to have announced anything but a new commitment to Iraq would have been seen as an admission of error and failure. Even following the ISG’s recommendations would not have provided the sought after ‘political cover’ but rather looked like an admission that the traditional, ‘realist’ Republicans of his father’s administration were right after all. Moreover, the troop increase presents Democrats with a real dilemma. If they use their ‘power of the purse’ and cut off funding for the troop increase, they will be accused of not supporting the troops, and could be blamed for the violence that would surely follow. But if they fail to stop the new deployment and Bush can sustain it for two more years, he can pass Iraq over to his successor and let that successor take responsibility for whatever happens next.

There’s always the chance that the troop increase might work. It seems rather implausible to me that if 130,000 US troops in Iraq were not enough to prevent insurgency, ethnic cleansing and civil war, somehow 151,500 will manage to do so. But the internal dynamics of a situation like Iraq are unpredictable, and it cannot be entirely excluded that new American tactics and more serious efforts by the Maliki government could calm things down just enough for Bush to be able to claim success by 2009. For the president, even if it is a long shot, that’s a better prospect than managing failure for the next two years. What happens though if the escalation doesn’t work, and by this time next year Iraq is in even worse chaos than it is now, and the US military presence becomes unsustainable? One option would be withdrawal, with Bush blaming whatever combination of Iraqis, Democrats and foreign terrorists he can. But another would be to focus blame for Iraqi instability on Iran, continue to confront Iranian intelligence operatives and allies in Iraq, and then launch a massive military strike on the Iranian nuclear programme while the troop withdrawal from Iraq is taking place. Brazen and audacious you say? Yes, but at what point do we stop being surprised?

Given the set of issues that Bush’s successor will inherit, it’s a wonder anybody wants the job. Yet by February 2007, at least a dozen candidates had already lined up for one of the most open presidential contests in decades. Not since 1952, in fact, has there been a presidential election that did not include either an incumbent president or vice-president (a trend likely to end in 2008, unless Dick Cheney decides he can base a campaign on the support of the 30 percent of Americans that approve of the job he’s doing). Other longstanding trends may also come to an end.We could see the first woman elected president (Hillary Clinton), the first African-American (Barack Obama), the first Hispanic (Bill Richardson) or the first Mormon (Mitt Romney). It could see the first sitting senator to win since John F. Kennedy in 1960 (Clinton, Obama, John McCain, Chuck Hagel, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, etc.), or the first northeasterner (Clinton, Romney, Dodd, Rudolf Giuliani) since the same time. It could see the youngest person to be elected president (Obama, who will be 47) since Bill Clinton (who was 46), the first Vietnam veteran (McCain or Hagel) or the first Indonesian speaker (Obama). It could see the first election since 1976 without a Clinton or a Bush on the ticket (if Hillary is defeated in the primaries and Jeb decides not to run). Finally, 2008 could see the first Oscar winner elected president (if Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth wins Best Documentary and he enters the race).This is going to be fun.