Events in the Middle East are not exactly turning out the way President George W. Bush would have liked, and this is particularly bad with an election year just around the corner.
The situation in Iraq is not progressing nearly as fast or as successfully as was initially hoped for. Rather, resistance to the continued US occupation is escalating. There are approximately 10 to 15 attacks carried out every day against American troops, though the military only reports them when a death occurs.
“There has been a dramatic worsening in the security situation in Baghdad, with attacks against the coalition forces remaining a daily occurrence,” stated a September 8 report from Baghdad issued by Centurion Risk Assessment Services, a firm specializing in providing protection services to many media and non-governmental organizations operating in Iraq. “Many parts of the city are out of bounds due to the increase in violence,” added the report.
So, understandably, the president is asking for help. Bush has requested from Congress an additional $87 billion (above what has already been allocated) to help support military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and to combat ongoing threats of terrorism, which have also not abated. In fact, since September 11, 2001, rumblings of a possible new al-Qaeda attack on America are louder than ever. In a recently released message, al-Qaeda vowed to hurt the US in a way that would make them forget the attacks on Manhattan and the Pentagon.
Interestingly, the president is now seeking help from the United Nations, as well as from the Europeans, two groups his administration cold-shouldered in launching the invasion of Iraq earlier this year that got the Bush administration in the Iraqi mess in the first place. Bush is beginning to feel the pressure. Since June, his approval ratings, according to a Zogby International Polls survey, have dropped by 13 points, while his disapproval ratings have risen by 12 points.
Consider the following: in mid-June the president commanded a 58% approval rating. That number went down five points to 53% by July 1. The president then lost another point by August 19th and ultimately sank to a low of 45% by September 6.
So, just how badly does the president need a successful turn in the Middle East to win the next election? Why is he spending that astronomical amount on Iraq? If a price tag could be placed on that question, the answer would be $87 billion.
Eighty-seven billion dollars buys a lot, particularly when compared to what has been earmarked in the Fiscal Year 2004 Budget for Discretionary Programs.
As rumblings over the increased war spending begin to gather momentum, Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Lieberman called Bush “the most fiscally irresponsible president in the history of America.”
But in the reverse sense, how much does the Middle East need Bush? With American casualties in Iraq surpassing the number of killed during the actual offensive, a debate is beginning to brew in Washington whether there is a need to dispatch more troops to Iraq or not. Some say yes, while others, such as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, say no, the current numbers can adequately do the job. Others in the administration, such as Karl Rove, the president’s senior advisor and Richard Pearl, the former chairman of the Pentagon’s Policy Advisory Board, are now advocating leaving Iraq altogether. The reality, however, lies somewhere in between.
Following the horrific blast at the Najaf Imam Ali mosque on August 29, which killed Ayatollah Syed Bakr al-Hakim and some 100 others, the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad on August 19 that killed its representative, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and another 20 people, some voices argued for reinforcing “boots on the ground.”
The Najaf and UN attacks, which came on the heels of a similar attack on the Jordanian embassy and the sabotage of major water and oil conduits, as well as another car bomb outside a Baghdad police station on September 2, reinforce the belief that the current level of troops is simply not enough for the task at hand. There are currently about 130,000 US, 11,000 Brits and some 8,000 soldiers made up from the rest of the coalition.
Others argued for more international troops from Europe, India and other friendly nations, particularly Muslim countries, that would allow American soldiers to be less visible, thus less prone to attack. The counter argument opined that more troops would simply offer those targeting coalition troops greater opportunities to kill American (and other allied) soldiers. The attack on the UN, after all, was not aimed at American troops. There is, indeed, something to be said for that.
In truth, it’s not more American troops that are needed in Iraq, but rather, speeding up of the process required in order to replace coalition troops with autochthonous forces.
In terms of simple numbers, Iraq had the largest army in the Middle East before the US-led invasion abolished it last April. According to a 2003 CIA estimate, Iraq had about 3.5 million men fit for military service. Deduct from that number those who were killed and disabled in the war and those who were too closely linked to the old regime in one way or another. Filtered down, you should easily come up with at least 100,000 able men. Why not mobilize them? And if you really want to revolutionize the country, allow Iraqi women into the armed forces, too. That should easily provide an additional 5,000 to 10,000 troops.
By now, more than five months into the occupation of Iraq, coalition commanders – with assistance from their friends in the Iraqi National Council, Kurds and others – should have no trouble identifying a cadre of friendly Iraqi officers able to lead a reformed military to take over control of much of the country’s security. At least as far as high-profile assignments go, such as the guarding of government buildings, major intersections, bridges and other sensitive installations. Let the Iraqi people feel they have direct involvement in the rebuilding of their nation, instead of appearing as bystanders with little or no say. The current situation in Iraq leaves little room for doubt; something needs to be done to prevent the country from becoming a refuge for Islamist militants and other groups opposed to democratic reform. And it needs to be done quickly. Every day that goes by draws more and more anti-American (as well as anti-democracy) forces to the region. So much has been acknowledged by American intelligence agencies. Note to those who opposed the United States’ unilateral policy or who might regard US policy in the Middle East as neo-colonialist imperialism: before you begin to applaud America’s headaches in Iraq, be advised that continued unrest in Iraq will also weaken the rest of the region. An unstable Iraq will only endanger the whole Middle East. The attack on the UN has changed the face of this war.
“If the Americans pull out now, it will open the area to the forces of darkness, the nihilists, the (Osama) bin Laden supporters, and others who will regress the area into the dark ages,” said a seasoned Middle East observer. Or, as President Bush pointed out to an American Legion convention in St. Louis on August 26, “Retreat in the face of terror would only invite further and bolder attacks.”
What we are seeing in Iraq in many ways is a repeat performance of what happened in Lebanon in 1982 to 1983, when a multinational force was dispatched to restore order to the war-ravaged country. Lebanon, at the time, was torn apart along sectarian lines with Christian militias opposed to a fractured Muslim-Leftist-Palestinian alliance. Much as the Shiites, Sunnis, Assyrians, Kurds and Turkmen are in Iraq. The difference in Iraq is that the various factions are not fighting each other at the level the Lebanese were, at least not yet.
Following the bombing of the US marines and the French army barrack attacks in Beirut 20 years ago this month, the multinational force decided to cut its losses and leave, abandoning Lebanon to its own predicament. The Bush administration, however, does not have that luxury in Iraq (particularly if he is looking towards the 2004 elections). Abandonment in its current state is not an option. Which is why two things need to happen with haste.
First, more international troops should be brought in, because security is a concern. The attack on the UN building demonstrated that this was not simply an assault on US forces, but also on the international community. And second, Iraqis should be given a more direct role in the running of their country sooner rather than later. Only at that point will the US be able to withdraw without dire consequences and begin to save taxpayers’ dollars. Until then, Bush needs Iraq as much as they need him, although both would like a quick divorce.
Claude Salhani is a senior editor and a political news analyst with United Press International in Washington, DC.