From a purely symbolic point of view, President Bush hardly could have picked a more unfortunate day than this past Monday to emerge from vacation and speak out in defense of his Iraq war policy.
Beset by falling polls and burgeoning anti-war protests, Bush chose a friendly audience at a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Salt Lake City and made his best pitch. He acknowledged the war’s toll, something he has declined to do through months of mounting casualties. He expressed sympathy for the fallen and vowed to “finish the task that they gave their lives for.” He promised to work to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan as allies who could help America “fight and win the war on terror.”
The message wasn’t a new one, but it was especially pointed Monday. That was the day that Iraq’s political leaders were supposed to hand parliament the final draft of their nation’s new constitution, the blueprint for the model democracy that the Bush administration had promised to build in Iraq. Freed from the hated Saddam Hussein dictatorship, Iraqis were going to show that they could share power equitably among their squabbling ethnic and religious factions and set an example of stability, transparency and human rights for the rest of the Arab and Muslim world. If there was a task our troops gave their lives for, this was it.
Of course, that’s not what happened. After missing their original deadline and taking a one-week extension, the constitutional drafters found themselves unable to bridge the gaps among the factions. Instead of reaching consensus as required, the two strongest factions, the Shi’ites and the Kurds, cut a deal that excluded the third faction, the Sunnis. The likely result will be increased bitterness among the Sunnis, and an escalation of the bloody insurgency they’ve been waging for the past two years.
More embarrassing to the Bush administration are the details in the constitution that so angered the Sunnis. Administration experts were hoping that the constitutional talks would lead to a deal under which Shi’ite pressure would temper the Kurds’ separatist ambitions and ensure a strong central state, while the Kurds would rein in the Islamist theocratic ambitions of the Shi’ites. What emerged was the opposite. The draft constitution is a blueprint for a weak federal state with strong Islamic influence on its legal and judicial system. It’s a constitution that promises reduced rights for women, greater influence for Islamic radicals and continuing instability. It’s an embarrassment to America, a setback for democracy and a boon to the Shi’ite Islamic republic next door to Iraq, namely Iran.
Monday, as it happened, was also the day that police in the Kingdom of Jordan made their first arrest in the case of the previous Friday’s rocket attack on American ships in Aqaba harbor. The rockets had missed the American ships but killed one Jordanian soldier in Aqaba city and damaged some property in the neighboring Israeli port city of Eilat. By Tuesday, it was clear that the attack had been planned and carried out by the Iraqi-based Al Qaeda organization led by Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi.
Zarqawi, analysts say, is fast emerging as the main leader of international jihadist terrorism, perhaps even eclipsing Osama bin Laden. Exploiting the chaos we’ve created over the past two years, he’s managing to set up an effective base of operations in Iraq from which he’s able to export terrorism to other parts of the Middle East. As this week’s rocket attacks demonstrated, he’s moved Al Qaeda right up to Israel’s doorstep.
That’s how we’re fighting and winning the war on terror.
Polls show that Americans are fed up with the Iraq adventure and are ready to start pulling out. In a Gallup poll released earlier this month, only 34% said the Iraq War had made us safer, while 57% said we were less safe and 56% said it’s time to start pulling out the troops. Even within the president’s own party, support is starting to crumble. One leading Republican senator, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a foreign-policy expert who’s been spoken about as a possible presidential candidate, said this week that Iraq was starting to look like Vietnam. Once people start talking that way, the game is up.
The pity of it all is that America actually needs a war plan in Iraq right now — if only to clear up the mess we’ve created over the past two years — but we’re less likely than ever to get one, unless the president changes course soon and starts listening to his critics.