Leading article: One last, desperate, throw of the dice


At any other time in the past six years, the nationwide television address that President George Bush is to make tonight might justifiably have been described as make-or-break. With no more elections to face, not even another round of congressional elections, though, President Bush has nothing to lose in terms of party politics or even personal authority. What is at stake is his legacy, and this is perhaps even more important to such a headstrong and ideological president.

It is already known that Mr Bush will be announcing a major change of policy on what is now the defining act of his presidency: the Iraq war. It is known, too, thanks to extensive leaks, that it will not be the change of policy many in the United States and abroad had hoped for. In this respect, the leaks may have been a deliberate effort by the White House to prepare and manage the expectations of the American public.

Rather than the Baker plan, compiled by the Iraq Study Group, which argued for the staged transfer of power to Iraqis matched by a progressive withdrawal of US troops, Mr Bush is believed to have chosen the so-called "surge" strategy. This would be a one-off addition of perhaps 10,000, perhaps 20,000 troops or more, designed to stem the insurgency and restore order in Baghdad and a particularly troublesome nearby province.

The thinking is that the US has a duty to leave Iraq with a semblance of order, and that a massive addition of US firepower is the only remaining way to achieve this. This strategy does not preclude a US withdrawal - far from it; by some it is seen as an essential prelude. But it would certainly postpone the day when US troops could leave Iraq for good.

There will be those - and perhaps not only the familiar cheerleaders for the Bush administration - who will argue that the "surge" offers the last, best hope for the Iraq venture, and that, as such, it should be seized. There is, however, a different way of looking at it.

In rejecting the Baker plan and preferring the "surge", Mr Bush is risking a last, desperate throw of the dice in the hope of salvaging something from his ill-conceived and mismanaged war. He is arrogantly defying the will of US voters, who comprehensively rejected his prosecution of the war in the November elections. And he is exposing thousands more US troops to mortal danger, not to speak of the Iraqis whose lives will be sacrificed to the new US offensive.

The word yesterday was that Mr Bush had not rejected the Baker plan entirely; he had rather selected from it - just as James Baker feared he would - rather than taking it for the integrated whole it was. This has two consequences. The first is that US strategy in Iraq will be ambiguous, slung awkwardly between the priorities of training Iraqis and transferring power on the one hand and trying to impose "order" by US force on the other. The second is that, by rejecting the recommendation for wider diplomacy in the region - specifically, talking to Syria and Iran - the political distance between the US and Britain, and the US and Europe, will widen. Any chance of internationalising the conflict, along the lines suggested by Iraq's former defence minister, Ali Allawi, will be lost.

It was instructive that the US mounted its raid against alleged al-Qa'ida operatives in Somalia just 48 hours before Mr Bush's address. This was a statement that the US was still intent on prosecuting its "war on terror", that it could still project its military power on several fronts, despite Iraq, and that the US could, and would, go it alone militarily. It should be no consolation to anyone that the scale of the débâcle in Iraq makes this opportunistic lightning raid seem little more than whistling in the dark.

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