29 June 2005
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
By Gwynne Dyer
If mere rhetoric could bridge the gulf of credibility, President
George W. Bush might have turned the tide with his nationally televised
speech on Tuesday evening. As usual, he strove to blur the distinction
between the “war on terror” (which almost all Americans still see as
necessary) and the war in Iraq (which they are finally turning against),
and promised the viewers that all would end well if they only showed
“resolve”. But the audience has heard it too many times before.
A majority of Americans now understand that the terrorist attacks
in Iraq are a result of the US invasion, not a justification for it. Many
have also see the leaked CIA report that concluded that Iraq is producing a
new breed of Arab jihadis, trained in urban warfare, who are more numerous
and deadlier than the generation that learned its trade in Afghanistan. So
they don’t believe the war in Iraq is making them safer — and they see no
light at the end of the tunnel.
Since Vice-President Dick Cheney boasted in early June that the
insurgency in Iraq was “in its last throes,” more than eighty American
solders and about 700 Iraqi civilians have been killed. On Monday the new
Iraqi prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, declared that “two years will be
enough and more than enough to establish security” — but the previous
evening US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld mused aloud on US television
that the insurgency in Iraq might last for “five, six, eight, ten, twelve
Even more than casualties, the American public hates defeat, and it
can sense panic and confusion among the president’s allies and advisers.
The latest polls show a huge swing against the Iraq war in American public
opinion, with around 60 percent now opposing the war and refusing to
believe that the Bush administration has a clear plan for winning it. But
that doesn’t mean that US troops will actually be leaving Iraq any time
soon. There is still the question of saving face.
People forget that American public opinion turned against the
Vietnam war in 1968, but that the withdrawal of US combat troops was not
completed until 1973. The intervening five years (and two-thirds of all
American casualties in the war) were devoted to the search for a way to get
US troops out of Vietnam without admitting defeat. At the very least,
there had to be a “decent interval” after the US left before the victors
collected their prize.
In the end, the humiliation was far greater than if the United
States had simply walked away in 1968 — the roof of the American embassy
in Saigon in 1975 is among the best-known images of American history — and
the US army became so demoralised that it was virtually useless as a
fighting force for a decade afterwards. But we are dealing with human
psychology here, so the pattern is likely to repeat.
The current administration in Washington has identified itself with
the Iraq adventure so closely that it would have great difficulty in just
walking away — especially since Mr Bush is loyal beyond reason to the
neo-conservative ideologues whose obsessions landed him in this mess. There
will be mid-term elections to Congress in only sixteen months, but it
stretches belief that US forces could be extracted from Iraq so quickly
without having a negative effect on Republican chances in that vote.
The real deadline for a US withdrawal from Iraq is the three and a
half years that the Bush presidency has left. Keeping control of the White
House will be the most important consideration for American Republicans in
2008, so there must be some resolution of the Iraq problem by then. What
might it be?
There is the happy-ever-after ending, constantly promised by the
Bush administration and its Iraq collaborators, where all the Iraq
communities reconcile, the insurgency dies down, and a genuinely democratic
government begins to deliver security and prosperity to the exhausted
Iraqis. Such an outcome is not impossible in principle, but it is unlikely
to occur while US troops are still occupying the country and goading both
Islamists and Arab nationalists into resistance.
There is also the roof-of-the-embassy scenario, but that is equally
unlikely. The Sunni Arab insurgents in Iraq, drawn from a solid block of
20 percent of the population occupying the heart of the country, have the
power to thwart any peace settlement that excludes them. But they cannot
drive US troops out, and they cannot reestablish their political domination
over the Shia Arabs and the Kurds even if the Americans leave.
The real problem in securing a “decent interval” that would allow a
dignified American withdrawal from Iraq is that the insurgents cannot
deliver it — because they are too weak and divided. The foreigners among
them answer to no state authority, and the Iraqi majority are
overwhelmingly drawn from the Sunni Arab minority whose leadership was
decapitated by the American invasion. They are all over the map, in dozens
of little organisations, and American negotiators can’t even figure out the
key people to talk to.
So it’s going to be messy, and it’s even possible that US troops
won’t be out of Iraq three and a half years from now. In which case the
next US president will be a Democrat.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 9. (“The current…vote”;
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles
are published in 45 countries.