Bush’s Iraq speech

Some preliminary thoughts based on President Bush’s “new strategy” speech on Iraq Wednesday night:

–Bush said “we must succeed in Iraq.” The question is whether, given his adminstration’s hubris and failures over the past four years, success (creating the conditions for a reasonably stable and democratic country) is still possible. The past year has been a hard one for optimists.

–Disbanding the Iraqi army after the US invasion may or may not have been the right thing to do, but it helped create a huge pool of unemployed men willing to join the Sunni insurgency for a few dollars a day. Similarly a lack of work in places like Sadr City means no shortage of recruits for Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi army. But job-creation efforts in Iraq have mostly been hit-and-miss. I was among those who advocated a massive WPA-style jobs program for Iraq– which the free-market-minded Bush administration did not implement. Early reports said Bush would announce such a program in his speech. He didn’t. I hope it’s in the plan somewhere, even if it’s a few years late.

–After years of explaining that no new US forces were required because his generals told him so, Bush is sending an additional 20,000. It might have helped before the sectarian fighting become so brutal last year. Now it seems mostly symbolic. I hope I’m wrong about this.

–Some supporters of the war have taken to blaming the Iraqis for the wretched sectarian violence wracking the country. Fortunately Bush himself did not do so. As Peter Beinart– a former supporter of the war– wrote in The New Republic last month:

It’s a soothing, self-justifying argument, but it’s dead wrong. The United States has not given Iraqis their freedom because freedom requires order, which the United States–from the very beginning–did not provide. And the United States has not given Iraqis a republic because a republic presupposes a state. Max Weber famously defined the state as the institution with a monopoly on legitimate violence, and, by that definition, there has been no Iraqi state since the United States invaded more than three years ago.

Shia and Sunni Iraqis are not turning on one another because of ancient, primordial hatreds. They’re turning on one another because when the state fails in its most basic task–keeping you alive–you turn to any entity that can. Imagine you’re in prison. The state (embodied by the prison guards) doesn’t protect you, and the hallways are controlled by racial gangs. If your survival depends on it, you’ll develop a neo-Nazi or Nation of Islam identity awfully fast.

–While US failure to provide security and jobs is largely responsible for the rise of the militias, it’s time for Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki to develop a backbone and challenge his sometime political ally al-Sadr. That means either convincing him to disband and disarm his militia or ordering the Iraqi army to fight and defeat it. This is a job primarily for Iraqi forces, not for Americans. Maliki promised to act in June, but failed to deliver. As is so often the case with Iraq, the words were more impressive than the actions. In his speech Bush seemed to be saying, “This time Maliki really means it.” That’s the real test, and it’s coming soon. If Maliki and his government challenge Sadr in a serious and sustained fashion, then I think US and UK forces will have a reason to stay in Iraq. But if they back off or cave in to Sadr– as they have in the past– it’s hard to see how the US or the UK can accomplish anything else in Iraq, even with a hundred thousand more troops.

–Whatever happens in Iraq, we on the democratic Left need to stand with that country’s trade union movement which– among other things– helps create solidarity across ethnic and religious lines. That support doesn’t depend on what Bush, Blair or anyone else says or does. (Although I doubt Bush realizes it, one of his countless mistakes was his failure to support a leading role for trade unions in post-invasion Iraq.)

–I continue to believe the vast majority of Iraqis want to live free and peaceful lives. I believe some day they will (I can’t forget the photos of Iraqi voters proudly displaying their purple fingers) although I can never forgive Bush and company for making that so much more difficult to achieve than it should have been.