Bush's remarks, the first in a series of appearances and other administration initiatives designed to rally support for maintaining as many as 170,000 U.S. troops in Iraq well into 2008 in advance of a critical report to Congress due in mid-September, suggested to supporters and critics alike that the president remains as determined as ever to hold out against pressure, even from his own party, to begin withdrawing troops in the coming months.
"The president is not going to change; he's going to insist on staying the course," said ret. Gen. John Johns, a counter-insurgency specialist. "What is required is that the Republican leadership in Congress force the president (to change course). I do not see that in the works today, and I don't understand why."
Bush's speech, which followed the overnight crash of a U.S. Blackhawk helicopter in which 14 U.S. soldiers were killed -- the worst one-day U.S. death toll in more than a year -- came amid growing speculation about both the fate of al-Maliki's government and the report by Washington's ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, and its military commander there, Gen. David Petraeus, which Congress may receive as early as Sep. 11.
The report, which is supposed to be an assessment of the six-month-old surge strategy, is likely to echo what has become a growing consensus here over the past several weeks -- that, while the addition of some 30,000 U.S. troops and the adoption of more-aggressive counter-insurgency tactics have succeeded in reducing sectarian violence in Baghdad, virtually no comparable progress has been made on the political front.
Not only has the Iraqi parliament failed to approve legislation on the distribution of oil revenues, the eligibility of former Ba'ath party officials to return to government, or on the holding of elections that would give Sunnis a greater voice in provincial and local councils, but the largest Sunni bloc aligned with the government walked out earlier this month.
Crocker himself called progress toward national reconciliation "extremely disappointing" Tuesday, while even Bush appeared to be hedging his support for al-Maliki during a visit to Canada Tuesday, calling on the government "to do more through its parliament to help heal the wounds of ...having lived years under a tyrant."
Their remarks followed a harsh assessment earlier this week by the chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin, on his return from his latest trip to Iraq. Calling the regime "non-functional," Levin said he hoped "the parliament will vote the Maliki government out of office and will have the wisdom to replace it with a less sectarian and more unifying prime minister and government."
Levin also released a joint statement signed by the senior committee Republican and another surge skeptic, Sen. John Warner, which conveyed much the same message, albeit in somewhat softer language.
But most analysts here believe it unlikely that al-Maliki will be forced out, and that, even if he is, a successor will be any less sectarian given the current balance of forces within the parliament and the apparent unwillingness at this time of either the majority Shi'a and their Kurdish partners to make major concessions to the Sunnis of the kind the U.S. and Crocker have been urging.
"You could swap Maliki out for another Shi'a, but frankly I don't see the basic dynamics of Iraqi politics as opening the door to the kind of reconciliation we need," said Steven Simon of the Council on Foreign Relations, who spoke with Johns during a teleconference organized by the National Security Network (NSN) after Bush's speech. Even while Bush himself reiterated support for al-Maliki, the Iraqi leader lashed out against the growing pressure against him during a visit to Damascus Wednesday. "The Iraqi government was elected by the Iraqi people; no one has the right to set a timetable for it," he said, referring to Levin's remarks. These statements do not concern us much. We care for our people and our constitution and can find friends elsewhere," he added in a comment that Simon described as an "implicit threat" that Iran was "perhaps a more reliable ally (of his government) than the U.S." By reiterating his support for al-Maliki and by once again suggesting that a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would have catastrophic results, Bush appeared Wednesday to be digging himself in for a major new confrontation with Democrats in Congress.
Boasting of recent military successes, Bush said U.S. troops were asking: "Whether elected leaders in Washington pulled the rug out from under them just as they're gaining momentum and changing the dynamic on the ground in Iraq. Here's my answer: We'll support our troops; we'll support our commanders, and we will give them everything they need to succeed."
Comparing Washington's current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan with the "ideological struggles" of World War II and "the communists in Korea and Vietnam," Bush argued that the subsequent transitions of Japan and South Korea into democratic states should offer hope for similar results in the Middle East.
As for the Vietnam War, Bush implied that Washington's withdrawal constituted a moral abdication to the people of Indochina. ."..(O)ne unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens, whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like 'boat people,' 're-education camps' and 'killing fields.'"
"Unlike in Vietnam," he went on, "if we were to withdraw before the job was done, this enemy would follow us home." On the other hand, a "free Iraq will be a massive defeat for al Qaeda (and) an example that provides hope for millions throughout the Middle East. It'll be a friend of the United States, and it's going to be an important ally in the ideological struggle of the 21st century."
But critics argued that Bush fundamentally misunderstood the historical precedents he cited. "Bush is cherry-picking history to support his case for staying the course," said Johns, who was a senior military planner during the Vietnam War. "What I learned in Vietnam is that U.S. forces could not conduct a counter-insurgency operation. The longer we stay there, the worse it's going to get."
As for Bush's references to the violence, especially in Cambodia, that followed its withdrawal from Indochina, Simon noted that much of it happened "because the United States left too late, not too early. It was the expansion of the war (into Cambodia) that opened the door to Pol Pot and the genocide of the Khmer Rouge. The longer you stay the worse it gets."
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