Don’t beat around the Bush

Some ex-American hawks are now admitting that Iraq may compare to the other massive US debacle—Vietnam  Kaushik Kapisthalam Philadelphia In 1994, the Republican Party fielded a bunch of young candidates for elections to the House of Representatives. Armed with what they called a ‘Contract with America’ and a promise to end corruption, they rode to power for the first time in 40 years by beating incumbents in 52 seats. In November, the tables turned and the Democrats gained 30 seats, winning back the majority. Mid-term US elections are typically bad for the party of the incumbent president. However, what happened this time was not just a matter of mid-term blues for George W Bush. Apart from the House sweep, the Democrats also regained power in the Senate, albeit with a razor-thin 51-49 margin. Unlike the ‘Republican Revolution’ of 1994, the Democrats this year had no compact or big promises. Their main issue was one on which they did not have even a unified policy—Iraq.Bush did not wait long to react to the election news. In just hours after the results were known, he announced that his confidant and one of the main architects of the Iraq invasion, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, would soon be out of a job. The drama of Rumsfeld’s sacking was heightened by Bush’s spirited defence of him days before when an influential military publication chain called for Rumsfeld’s head over his mishandling of Iraq. A week before the election, when the Army Times group observed, “Rumsfeld has lost credibility with the uniformed leadership, with the troops, with Congress and with the public at large," Bush responded by insisting that Rumsfeld will stay on until 2008. When asked by reporters why he defended Rumsfeld just days before firing him, Bush danced around the question before moving on. Amazingly, the usually hostile White House press corps let him get away, perhaps feeling that the president had received enough of a beating from the US voters. Bush acknowledged the message of the people later on in the press conference, calling the election results a “thumping”. Rumsfeld himself was defiant, noting in his exit press meeting that the Iraq war was “not well known” and “not well understood”. It appeared as though Rumsfeld was criticising the American voters for not showing enough intelligence in understanding Iraq.What Rumsfeld’s removal means for America’s Iraq campaign is still uncertain. There is little doubt now in the US that Iraq is sliding out of control. The conflict has become worse than a civil war and the country’s administration is on the brink of collapse. There are at least four internal conflicts, the status of which varies between unsteady and Armageddon. There is a Shia-Sunni civil war in and around Baghdad, intra-Shiite conflicts in the south, a Sunni jihadi insurgency in the west and ethnic tension between Arabs and Kurds in the north for the control of oil-rich lands. Recent estimates of Iraqis killed since the US invasion of 2003 range from 60,000 to several lakhs. At least twenty lakh Iraqis are refugees or have become displaced. Readers of tea leaves in Washington say that Bush may be signalling a strategic shift by replacing Rumsfeld with former CIA director Robert Gates. A confidant of George HW Bush, the former president, Gates is known as a foreign policy “realist”. His appointment has caused unease in the hawkish neoconservative circles and many believe Gates is essentially a person sent by ‘Bush the elder’ to save his own presidential legacy. Interestingly, Gates was quoted in the media criticising the Iraq war not long after Bush ordered American troops to invade Baghdad.Soon after the elections, Bush’s buddy, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, publicly admitted what everyone has known for a long time—the Iraq war is a ‘disaster’. In India, the common practice by politicians in power, who are faced with disastrous issues or unpalatable decisions, is to appoint commissions of inquiry staffed by non-controversial judges or bureaucrats. In the US, they appoint ‘bi-partisan’ study groups, staffed usually by retired lawmakers from both parties. Many months ago, Bush appointed a panel, called the Iraq Study Group, led by former secretary of state James Baker, a Republican, and former Democratic Congressman, Lee Hamilton, who was the vice chairman of the panel that investigated the September 11, 2001, attacks. The group may be bi-partisan, but many believe it does not necessarily include people with varying views. Most of the panel members appear to be people who were sceptical of the Iraq war or critics of its conduct. Writing in the neoconservative magazine,Weekly Standard, Iraq hawk Michael Rubin claimed that “many appointees (to the Iraq Study Group) appeared to have been selected less for expertise than for their hostility to Bush’s war on terrorism and emphasis on democracy”. Baker is best known for his role in assembling the coalition that the US put together to push out Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. He is believed to have advised the senior Bush not to let US troops push on to Baghdad after Iraqi forces were beaten out of Kuwaiti territory. Baker, like Gates, is a loyalist of the elder Bush. The group is slated to announce its recommendations this month. However, many believe the panel will make at least one controversial proposal, signalling the broadest policy shift by calling for direct talks between the US and Iran as well as Syria. “My view is you don’t talk just to your friends,” Baker said in an interview in October, “You talk to your enemies as well. You need to talk to your enemies in order to move forward diplomatically toward peace. And talking to someone, in my opinion, at least my personal opinion, does not equate to appeasement.” This must be a bitter pill for Bush because he has consistently refused to even consider the notion of negotiations with Iran or Syria. The White House routinely accuses those two nations of helping fuel instability in Iraq and supporting international terrorism.Some former hawks are now admitting that Iraq may compare to the other US debacle—Vietnam. There is a sense in anti-war circles that even if the Iraq Study Group ends up proposing non-controversial recommendations, it may make its biggest impact by treating a quick American withdrawal as a serious policy option. It appears certain that such a recommendation, titled a ‘redeployment’ or ‘concentration of troops’, will make it into the report. Few in Washington expect the US policy towards India or Pakistan to change because of the dramatic results. There is a bi-partisan consensus regarding US policy towards India and Pakistan. With New Delhi, almost everyone in Congress favours close strategic ties. With Pakistan, however, foreign policy mavens in both parties are paralysed with fear and confusion, and therefore reluctant to make any changes.On November 17, the ‘lame duck’ US Senate approved a long-stalled legislation that is a required step toward US-India nuclear cooperation. The vote was 85 to 12 and led by Republicans and centrist Democrats; the Senate defeated a handful of amendments that India said would kill the deal, including a requirement that New Delhi end military cooperation with Iran. That amendment failed 59 to 38. As for Pakistan and the deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan—the one war that had steady bi-partisan support in Congress, it’s not so simple. US commander in Afghanistan, Gen. James Jones, recently told Congress that the official US position is that the Taliban are based in the Pakistani city of Quetta. This is a stark admission for an administration that has so far refused to acknowledge mountains of evidence connecting Pakistan to international terrorism. The general refused to answer what the US planned about armed men killing American troops in Afghanistan being commanded by people sitting in comfort in the provincial capital of a supposed “ally”. Thus, despite the growing unease, there is little indication that any serious rethink towards Pakistan is on the table for the Democratic Congress.  The author is a strategic analyst based in the US