A very serious and clearly worried President Bush has publicly acknowledged what he must surely have at least been conceding for some time in the dark hours late at night when the demons come, and what has become hauntingly clear to most people over the last 12 months or so; that the situation in Iraq has well and truly turned to custard. In response, Dubya has gone on national TV with an unprecedented Mea Culpa and a strategy to address the question of how things have to change in order to “win”.

Henry’s Lexington, reporting from the coalface, has some definite views on the situation which is unfolding in the US as you read this, including the unsettling – for Republicans – news that some members of Bush’s own party have already rejected the new strategy as unworkable. The rabbits are running and the next week or so is going to make for very compelling political theatre. Indeed, there seems to be no universally accepted or understood definition of what winning means.

The events of the last couple of days may well represent the most pivotal moment in the conflict since the smart bombs started their inbound journey to Baghdad in March, 2003. Dubya has replaced one high risk strategy (hanging on for dear life to a plan that has been unravelling almost since he declared victory on the deck of that aircraft carrier), with another.

The new plan has the hallmarks of “lesser of two evils” and is really the only option available to the Western Allies given the constant deterioration in circumstances and the inexorable degradation of public opinion on the war, particularly in the US and the UK. Henry’s view is that the latest announcement shows that the US President has come under incredible pressure from sections of his own party to “take one for the team” and has shifted his focus markedly to the home front. For the immediate term at least in the US, legacy be damned, “it’s the election, stupid”.

The central acknowledgement with the addition of 20,000-odd troops, is that the Iraq effort has been under-resourced and that those charged with settling things down have been too busy reacting and sticking fingers in dykes to get on top of things and prevent a civil war. The plan is an attempt to overwhelm the insurgency and force calm on the country so that the local authorities have a fighting chance of imposing law and order, and maintaining it once the coalition withdraws.

But in one key respect the President hit a nail right on the head. The Iraqi people have to take freedom and sort out their own troubles. The well-meaning but catastrophic attempts to give them freedom have clearly failed. President Bush has clearly said “It’s up to you, guys”. That is obviously correct and may just be effective.

Howard has predictably come out in support of the new strategy, making the point that Dubya really had no choice given the situation. This is undoubtedly correct, but the logical conclusion to these events will not give any of the involved western leaders much joy at all. Australia’s contribution is largely symbolic, however, and we have so far not had a single casualty at the hands of the enemy. Unless things change, the political damage is likely to be minimal.

President Bush will be gambling that things will settle down enough for a face-saving withdrawal leaving the Iraqis in charge, which is clearly a damage control measure designed to minimise injury on the home front. Although his speech was peppered with references to “Victory”, it is at least at this point, impossibly difficult to envisage what that would look like.

Iraq has to sort itself out. Iran and Syria must be partying like it is 1999. What a mess but at least now the real issue – whether the Iraqi people are up to the job of building a free nation – is on the table.

Read more at Henry Thornton.

Peter Fray

Get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for $12.

Without subscribers, Crikey can’t do what it does. Fortunately, our support base is growing.

Every day, Crikey aims to bring new and challenging insights into politics, business, national affairs, media and society. We lift up the rocks that other news media largely ignore. Without your support, more of those rocks – and the secrets beneath them — will remain lodged in the dirt.

Join today and get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12.


Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey