USA: Courting trouble to buy votes
Embassy of Eritrea

It would appear that the Bush administration has concluded, somewhat belatedly, that US forces are incapable of bringing the security situation in Iraq under control and are powerless to prevent the daily increase in the number and severity of attacks.

For the Bush White House, problems with its policy on Iraq are compounded by the fact that next year"s presidential elections are effectively underway already and, however many fingers are crossed, what happens in Iraq cannot help but determine the outcome.

Bush"s priority – naturally - is to get himself re-elected. He is thus likely to choose an alternative policy for Iraq that offers the best prospects for resolving the security crisis in a manner that will enhance his popularity ratings. The problem, though, is that just as his administration has begun to sense the risks involved in persisting with current policy, it has also realized the dangerous lack of available alternatives.

So Bush is left in a double bind. In his determination to get re-elected, he may feel compelled to opt for a course of action that will strategically impair Washington"s ability to secure a decisive victory in the war in Iraq. And should this happen, the American public may well conclude that they have a president who will do anything just to hang on to power.

Amid such uncertainty one things seems clear: Bush will only be able to win the forthcoming presidential elections and the war in Iraq if he succeeds in bringing US forces back home before next November, after having established a government in Iraq that is both loyal to the US and capable of maintaining security. The likelihood of achieving this double success is – from today"s perspective - next to zero.

A hasty withdrawal of US forces from Iraq would prompt one of two results: the establishment of a government in Baghdad hostile to the US, or civil war. In either case, the US will have lost the war, and Bush will fail to get re-elected. But if Washington is to successfully install an Iraqi government loyal to the US and capable of securing the country, its troops must remain in Iraq far beyond the timetable dictated by electoral campaign schedules.

Bush and his advisors will, of course, have many a sleepless night counting ever-rising US casualties. And as the death toll increases, so Bush"s electoral chances fall. In this respect, a shift by Iraqi resistance to concentrate attacks on non-US forces in Iraq, in an effort to deter other nations from committing forces that might alleviate the burden on American troops, is an interesting development.

The US is thus faced with two alternatives. The first is to transfer power to an interim Iraqi government with wide-ranging powers, including responsibility for security. This would allow US troops to leave residential districts and re-deploy in fortified positions away from the cities, reducing the risk of attack. The second alternative would be to manipulate circumstances in such a way as to precipitate a conflict with Iran or Syria, and then rely on the American public standing behind their president. The White House, for the time being at least, appears to have opted for the first alternative. We should not, however, discount a switch to the second.

Two weeks ago, Bush recalled Presidential Envoy Paul Bremer to Washington for consultations. Following the visit, administration officials issued statements indicating that Washington was seriously examining ways to transfer power to an interim Iraqi government before the end of next year, i.e. before the November 2004 elections. Spurred by the growing success of the Iraqi resistance, Washington is seeking to change its plans for Iraq and appears now to accept a clear timetable for democratic elections and the transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqi people, something it rejected less than a month ago when pressed by other permanent members of the Security Council.

Unfortunately, however, there is a vast difference between declarations of intent and Washington"s ability to act on them. Any interim government in Iraq will face an enormous problem, since its success in establishing sufficient authority to allow US forces to withdraw to safer positions will be dependent on its independence from the occupying forces. Such autonomy can only be achieved by setting in motion a political process, under UN supervision, capable of leading to the formation of an interim government, the drafting of a constitution, and the holding of democratic elections. Yet this remains precisely the course most opposed by Washington"s hawks.

What lies behind Washington"s declared intentions then, is less a desire to placate Iraq than to domesticate a conflict set in motion by the invasion and subsequent occupation. The US administration is seeking to transform the conflict into an Iraqi-Iraqi war in which Washington will support one of the two sides. The transfer of power trumpeted by US officials will be purely cosmetic, entailing no more than a temporary mandate for certain Iraqi factions to fight the war on America"s behalf. Once US presidential elections are over, America will once again take up the reins until it succeeds in engineering the kind of Iraq it wants, a country that has been effectively severed from its Arab and Islamic identity and thoroughly infiltrated by Israel.

The chances of such a plan succeeding are remote. The capacity of any temporary government installed in Baghdad to make rapid decisions and then implement them requires a heavily centralized and non-sectarian administration. Yet the Iraqi army, security services, and police have all been disbanded. Reconstructing them on models that will satisfy Washington"s ideological criteria would take years – certainly more than the 11 months or so until November 2004.

Furthermore, there does not seem to be the remotest possibility of the occupation authorities creating a non-sectarian government acceptable to all. Any interim Iraqi government will therefore be entirely dependent on the support of US forces, which will in turn make it less credible, more isolated, and open to attempts to topple it. Meanwhile, US forces directly involved in operations against the resistance behind the façade of an Iraqi government will remain vulnerable to attack.

Bush, then, will find himself back at square one. As the election campaign heats up he will face a barrage of criticism, including more intense questioning over the ever-elusive weapons of mass destruction and the real reason the lives of American troops were put at risk in Iraq.

Under such circumstances, the administration in Washington might opt for a more aggressive way out of its domestic predicaments. The temptation to concoct a crisis with Iran and/or Syria could then be overwhelming.

Let us not forget that the current US administration is ruthlessly pragmatic. With an irredeemably ultraconservative stamp, it espouses views that border on intolerance and racism. Indeed, in terms of its tenacity, it is not that different from earlier Fascist or Stalinist administrations the world has seen.

Nor are democratic institutions, especially in times of crisis, immune to subversion. Democratic societies can be anesthetized into compliance if the right patriotic, nationalist or ethnocentric buttons are pressed. This is precisely what occurred in the US in the wake of September 11. Bush, who barely scraped into the Oval Office, and even then only on the back of a recount, became a national hero overnight, cheered by some 85 percent of the American people – the beginning of a collective coma from which they have not entirely recovered.

Israel, we should also remember, has become more central to the US decision-making process, a position secured not only on the basis of mutual security interests but also, and more dangerously, for ideological reasons. Pro-Israeli forces were the most vociferous advocates of the invasion of Iraq. They will be equally vociferous in advocating regime change in Iran – and so the elimination of Hizbullah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad - and the eventual redrawing of the regional map.

We cannot, then, rule out the possibility that Washington"s ultraconservatives will target Tehran. Bush may know that a strike against Iran would be foolhardy. But that may be no deterrent when it could rally public opinion around the flag.

Hassan Nafaa is professor of political science at Cairo University. Courtesy of Media Monitors.