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Bush's Tet

By Robert Parry
April 9, 2004

George W. Bush’s defenders were still fuming over Sen. Ted Kennedy labeling the Iraq War “Bush’s Vietnam” when the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq suffered what might be called “Bush’s Tet.”

Like the Vietcong-North Vietnamese offensive during the Tet holiday in 1968, this April's Iraqi uprising in both Sunni and Shiite regions has altered the perception of the reality on the ground. Just as the Tet offensive shattered the “light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel” myth in Vietnam, the Iraqi uprising has destroyed any realistic prospect that the Bush administration’s wishful thinking about Iraq might somehow come true.

The uprising – from the street-to-street fighting in the Sunni city of Fallujah to the running battles with Moktada al-Sadr’s militia forces in Shiite strongholds in the south – means that the political side of the Iraq War is lost and that means the war itself is effectively lost. The only big questions left are how many more soldiers and civilians will die – and how many more angry young Islamic radicals will be driven into the arms of al-Qaeda.

But the immediate question in Washington is whether the Bush administration and its legions of defenders will come to grips with this unpleasant reality on the ground. As in Vietnam, the temptation is to deny the reality and to continue the carnage rather than to make the hard decisions that would reverse course, save lives and minimize the strategic damage to the United States.

War Hawks

The New York Times columnist William Safire is an example of the pro-Bush war hawks who have chosen to hunker down in the ideological rubble of Bush’s strategy. “We should keep in mind our historic bet: that given their freedom from a savage tyrant, the three groups that make up Iraq could, with our help, create a rudimentary democracy that would turn the tide against terrorism,” Safire wrote in an April 7 column.

But that notion of a U.S.-nurtured “democracy” somehow turning the tide against terrorism is among the casualties of the Iraqi uprising. It should now be obvious that the U.S.-led occupation is hated by too many Iraqis, who are ready to fight and die, for Iraq ever to submit to a U.S. formula for a future government.

These Iraqis have made clear that the peaceful conditions needed for electoral preparations don’t – and won’t – exist while the occupation continues. Imagine the fate of some poor U.S.-financed canvasser, clipboard in hand, walking through the slums of Sadr City trying to compile a voting list and asking for everyone’s names and addresses.

Bush’s “historic bet” in Iraq assumed incorrectly that the U.S.-led invasion would be broadly tolerated by the Iraqi people. A little more than a year ago, senior Bush administration officials, such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz, assured the American people that the U.S. troops would be welcomed by thankful Iraqis with open arms and flowers. The administration expected that civic order would be quickly restored and U.S. troop levels could be reduced to about 30,000 within months.

Less optimistic military experts, such as Gen. Eric Shinseki who foresaw the need of several hundred thousand soldiers, were ridiculed by the likes of Wolfowitz, who said Shinseki’s estimate was “way off the mark.” Today, a year after the invasion, U.S. troop levels are about 135,000 and U.S. commanders are considering a request for more soldiers.

Bush’s “historic bet” also held that with Saddam Hussein gone, Iraqis would let the U.S. occupiers elevate pro-U.S. Iraqis to leadership posts, “privatize” Iraqi industries, sell oil rights to international corporations, draft a constitution and eventually hold elections intended to sanction the post-invasion status quo.

Phase Two of this “historic bet” foresaw the U.S. success in Iraq toppling the first of many anti-American dominoes across the Middle East. More pragmatic experts, such as former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, warned that these ambitious goals reflected a naivete about the region and could prove counterproductive.

Iraqi Resistance

Indeed, Bush’s scheme did go awry almost from the start. After the invasion was launched on March 19, 2003, Iraqi resistance was fiercer than expected. Some American supply columns were ambushed in towns like Nasiriyah that were expected to be friendly. In some battles, Iraqi troops charged into the face of devastating American firepower and were mowed down.

Meanwhile, special U.S. units searching for weapons of mass destruction didn’t find any, undercutting Bush’s principal justification for war and further enflaming Arab and world opinion. Even as U.S. troops progressed toward Baghdad, some U.S. military experts were voicing alarm at the Bush administration’s tendency to mix wishful thinking with a flawed military strategy. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Bay of Pigs Meets Black Hawk Down.”]

U.S. public optimism about the war was revived when U.S. troops captured Baghdad and toppled Saddam Hussein’s statue on April 9, 2003. But the stretched-thin U.S. forces found themselves confronting looting and chaos. In some restless cities, such as Fallujah, U.S. troops fired into crowds of demonstrators, killing civilians and stoking the beginnings of a resistance.

Bush declared the end of major combat on May 1, 2003, after donning a flight suit and landing on the aircraft carrier, U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln. But a guerrilla war in Iraq was soon underway. Within months, the number of U.S. soldiers killed during the occupation exceeded the 138 killed during the invasion. The number of U.S. dead is now over 600 and climbing rapidly. [For more details about Bush's flight-suit miscalculation, see Consortiumnews.com's "Bush's Iraqi Albatross."]

On the political front, the hand-picked members of the Iraqi “Governing Council” were widely viewed as quislings who survived only under the protection of the U.S. military. Meanwhile, terrorists slipped into central Iraq and carried out suicide bombings, including the destruction of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad.

Rather than see these setbacks as warning signs, the Bush administration continued to believe its own P.R. about progress. So, instead of using existing food ration lists as voting rolls for quick elections of Iraqi leaders who could claim some popular support, U.S. officials dawdled, insisting on a better national voting list, a fine-tuned interim constitution and then elections.

The Sovereignty Scam

Those promises of Iraqi national elections now continue to recede, even as Washington says it will turn over “sovereignty” to Iraqis on June 30. Rather than making progress on preparations for elections, U.S. troops and coalition allies are battling Iraqi insurgents in cities all over the country.

Even more troubling to U.S. policymakers, the insurgency appears to have taken deeper root among the population, with many Iraqis working as merchants or laborers during the day with their guns ready to fight the Americans. In addition, Sunnis and Shiites – normally bitter rivals – have begun to cooperate in attacks on coalition troops, according to recent press reports.  Even in Sunni towns, portraits of Shiite cleric Sadr are popping up, the Arab media has reported.

“The Sunnis and Shiites are now together,” Fatah Abdel-Razzaq, 31, a falafel-stand owner in Sadr City, told the Washington Post. “America came and destroyed the country. … What’s America doing?” [Washington Post, April 8, 2004]

While the Bush administration continues to insist that the uprising reflects the discontent of only a small number of Iraqis, U.S. intelligence has concluded that, to the contrary, the Shiite uprising is broad-based, the New York Times reported. “Intelligence officials now say that there is evidence that the insurgency goes beyond Mr. Sadr and his militia, and that a much larger number of Shiites have turned against the American-led occupation,” correspondent James Risen wrote. [NYT, April 8, 2004]

The much-touted hand-over of “sovereignty” is also certain to disappoint the Iraqis since very little will change. Instead of getting orders from U.S. political chief, Paul Bremer, the new Iraqi “leaders” will get their instructions from a U.S. ambassador housed in the largest U.S. embassy in the world. As for their “sovereignty,” the Iraqis won’t even have the power to order occupation troops out of the country.

The June 30 ceremonies appear more targeted at U.S. public opinion than the Iraqi people. But the political risk to the Bush administration could grow when Americans see continued U.S. casualties and begin to understand that the hand-over of power in Iraq was more a shell game than real.

The “sovereignty” shell game in Iraq also is sure to have its counterpart in the United States. Team Bush will keep shifting the arguments, sliding away some claims that are disproved, replacing them with others, all the while maintaining a steady patter of insults against critics.

Safire: Vietnam to Iraq

The domestic propaganda strategy is another echo of Vietnam, with columnist Safire personifying the common tactics used on the home front of both wars.

As a White House speechwriter during the Nixon administration, Safire crafted some of Vice President Spiro Agnew’s classic slams against Vietnam War critics, such as the phrase “nattering nabobs of negativism.” Now Safire is doing the same from his perch on the New York Times editorial page, accusing anyone who differs with Bush’s war strategy of effectively aiding and abetting the enemy.

“Do the apostles of retreat realize how their defeatism, magnified by Arab media, bolsters the morale of the insurgents and increases the nervousness of the waverers?” Safire wrote on April 7. “Does our coulda-woulda-shoulda crowd consider how it dismays the majority of Iraqis wondering if they can count on our continued presence as they feel their way to freedom?”

Rather than applying a dose of realism to Bush’s “historic bet,” Safire and other Bush defenders are still trying to marginalize dissenters, a continuation of a public relations strategy that has been employed since the pre-war buildup in fall 2002. But the harrowing pictures from Iraq and the growing list of casualties are making Bush's P.R. strategy harder to enforce.

More and more Americans are skeptical of Bush's "historic bet" and are viewing him as a sort of gambling addict sliding more and more chips onto the table while holding a losing hand. As any experienced gambler knows, there is a name for someone who doesn’t know when to fold a bad hand and pull back from the table: sucker.

But Bush isn't just betting the kid’s college fund. He’s risking the lives of U.S. soldiers and Iraqi citizens. He’s also running the risk that his gamble will increase U.S. vulnerability to terrorism, not lessen it.

Like an amateur poker player in too deep, George W. Bush can’t seem to see any alternative but to go in deeper. In November, the American people will have to decide whether to escort Bush from the table or to give him a whole new pile of chips.

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