Jan 12 2007

Bush makes a risky new gamble to 'stay the course’ in Iraq

Tuscaloosa News

Editorial

If all went according to plan for President Bush, the payoff in Iraq would be enormous: America would have a client state in an oil-rich Arab country to counter the dangerous ambitions of Iran and Syria.

But hardly anything has gone according to plan for Bush in Iraq. He admitted as much on Wednesday; then audaciously appealed to the American public to support him in yet another venture.

In doing so, the president invited comparison to a compulsive gambler in a high-stakes game. Cleaned out by wilier players, he doesn’t know when to stop. Instead, he has made a beeline to the ATM for more money, troops and materiel for a new round.

This time, the president promised, he will have a winning strategy. But his talk offered Americans little hope of expecting anything except more of the same -- a losing hand.

Clear-eyed, knowledgeable leaders like Tuscaloosa’s Republican Sen. Richard Shelby immediately challenged the president. He asked, “…how do we define winning?" and suggested Bush’s proposal to deploy some 20,000 new troops to Iraq comes too late.

The president is gambling that the additional forces, most of which will be deployed in Baghdad, will stabilize the Iraqi capital and allow Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki’s shaky new pro-American government a chance to get on its feet and take charge.

But the center of the new strategy also is its weakest point. Despite promises to Bush, al-Maliki has shown little initiative in taking primary responsibility for Iraq’s security.

He has been particularly reluctant to try to rein in the militias responsible for continuing the country’s bloody sectarian strife. The leader of the strongest of these paramilitary units, radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, remains one of the most powerful figures in the new Iraqi government. In addition to his 60,000-man militia, al-Sadr controls up to 30 members of Iraq’s new parliament and most observers see him as the power behind al-Maliki.

If al-Maliki continues to evade confronting al-Sadr’s militia, Bush’s gamble will fall like a house of cards.

The stakes are higher than the loss of a friendly Arab oil state. Already, Bush’s actions in Iraq have cost this country thousands of young lives and billions of dollars while seriously diminishing the world’s respect and trust in the United States.

Bush’s latest gamble comes in direct opposition to the majority in Congress, including members of his own party; the advice of some of his generals; the central findings of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group; and the will of the American electorate, which made its disenchantment with his Iraq policy obvious last November.

Yet Bush seems determined to take the risk on his new strategy and, as Shelby notes, he has the constitutional authority to proceed.

If the president will not heed the Congress, his generals or experts on the Middle East, perhaps he will respond to the public. Early polls show more than 60 percent oppose the president’s plan for a troop increase. That figure is bound to grow if al-Maliki wilts and casualties continue to climb.

After all, it’s Americans’ lives and capital that the president is risking. The public, at some point, may demand an intervention.