If there is anyone who still believes that US policy in Iraq is less than disastrous, the reshuffle announced by President Bush this week, and the major speech on strategy expected next, should supply an appropriate corrective. To be sure, the New Year is a time for change, and some of the moves Mr Bush announced were necessitated by earlier job moves. It is also true that military men, even the most senior, come to the end of their tours of duty.
Nonetheless, the sweeping list of removals and appointments made known by the White House in the past 24 hours must have few precedents in any presidency. Mr Bush has effectively replaced the whole chain of military command for Iraq and extended the purge to the intelligence services. He has appointed a new head of central command for Iraq and Afghanistan, a new leading ground commander for Iraq, a new director of national intelligence and a new US ambassador to Iraq.
Even to the two positions that were already vacant - at the UN and the State Department - Mr Bush has nominated men of a very different stamp from their predecessors. If this is not intended to signal a change of policy direction, it is hard to know what would. The Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, and the head of the NSC, Stephen Hadley - who was her deputy at the NSC - are among the few senior officials with anything to do with Iraq policy who emerge unscathed.
In one way, the purge may mark the completion of the process begun with the replacement of Donald Rumsfeld as Defence Secretary by the less ideological Robert Gates. In another, it may reflect the reality that the President has to deal with a new Congress in which the Democrats have a majority. The overall message conveyed, however, is ambiguous. The outgoing military commanders seemed to be increasingly at odds with Mr Bush, not because they sought a more aggressive policy in Iraq, but rather the reverse.
Precisely what President Bush has in mind will become fully apparent only when he delivers his much-anticipated speech next week. The latest word is that he is preparing to reject the approach set out late last year by the Congress-initiated Iraq Study Group, which would have entailed a gradual withdrawal, and support instead a "surge" of more troops in one last, all-out effort to quell the violence. If this is Mr Bush's preferred option, we see difficulties ahead, not only for White House relations with Congress, but for transatlantic relations as well. The Iraq Study Group recommendations seemed much closer to British government priorities. But the likely efficacy of throwing more firepower at the problem must also be questioned. Not only would it offer a vastly increased number of targets to the different groups of militants, but it also could alienate international opinion further.
The US and British governments would do well to study the blueprint drafted by Iraq's former defence minister, Ali Allawi, which was published in The Independent yesterday. This detailed plan has the benefit of an Iraqi author. It envisages guarantees for the country's minorities, the direct involvement of neighbouring countries, and an international force to replace the present US-dominated force. It is essentially a plan for the internationalisation of the conflict, with provision for a series of international conferences similar to those that ended the Afghan civil war.
If sufficient troops could be mustered, the true internationalisation of the Iraq conflict could point the way to a solution. Unfortunately, Mr Bush's military and political reshuffle suggests that his thinking is moving in the very opposite direction.Reuse content