Annotate This… President Bush’s Sept 13 Speech to the Nation on Iraq

Instead of charting a new direction for U.S. policy in Iraq, President Bush’s speech to the nation last evening was an impassioned plea to the American public to stay the course. But much of Bush’s argument for staying the course was based on spin instead of reality. In this edition of Annotate This… Stephen Zunes and Erik Leaver analyze Bush’s statements and offer an alternative interpretation of the situation on the ground.

“Terrorists and extremists who are at war with us around the world are seeking to topple Iraq’s government, dominate the region, and attack us here at home…”

While the al-Qaeda still is indeed operating world wide, President Bush failed to acknowledge findings of his own intelligence agencies that the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq has dramatically increased terrorism and extremism in the Middle East and beyond. Furthermore, the vast majority of those fighting U.S. and Iraqi government forces are not affiliated with al-Qaeda, which represents only a small minority of the insurgency, the majority of which are Iraqi Arab nationalists. Many of the insurgents do embrace a hard-line interpretation of Islam, but have no desire to dominate the region or attack Americans in the United States. A comprehensive nationwide poll of Iraqis by ABC/BBC/NHK earlier this month found that while Al-Qaeda had virtually no support, a full 60% see attacks on U.S.-led forces as justified.


“Anbar province is a good example of how our strategy is working. Last year, an intelligence report concluded that Anbar had been lost to al-Qaeda. Some cited this report as evidence that we had failed in Iraq and should cut our losses and pull out. Instead, we kept the pressure on the terrorists. The local people were suffering under the Taliban-like rule of al-Qaeda, and they were sick of it. So they asked us for help. To take advantage of this opportunity, I sent an additional 4,000 Marines to Anbar as part of the surge. Together, local sheiks, Iraqi forces, and Coalition troops drove the terrorists from the capital of Ramadi and other population centers. Today, a city where al-Qaeda once planted its flag is beginning to return to normal.”

As General Petreaus acknowledged, the Anbar Salvation Council – the coalition of local sheiks and Sunni militias which came together to fight al-Qaeda forces – was formed last September, four months before the “surge” in U.S. forces into the province began. These local forces had been fighting alongside al-Qaeda against U.S. and Iraqi government troops previously, but al-Qaeda’s extremist Islamist ideology and its massacres of civilians so alienated the populace that the local leaders have been willing to make a temporary alliance with U.S. forces to drive out the extremists, many of whom come from Saudi Arabia and other foreign countries. The hostility of those in the Anbar Salvation Council to the Iraqi government (which they see as dominated by pro-Iranian Shiite fundamentalists) as well as to the United States (which they see as a foreign occupier) raises the likelihood that once the al-Qaeda forces are marginalized, they will turn their guns once again on U.S. and Iraqi government forces. Unlike the extremists, those in the Anbar Salvation Council have widespread popular support and — thanks to American arms and training provided in recent months — could end up being a bigger threat to the Iraqi government and U.S. forces than al-Qaeda, a possibility acknowledged in a recent National Intelligence Estimate. And they are unlikely to be placated, as Prime Minister Malaki has explicitly ruled out working with some of the Sunni groups temporarily allied with U.S. forces in Anbar.

Even in the short term, this western part of Iraq does not constitute as much of a success as President Bush claims. Some of the sheiks have taken advantage of this alliance to settle old scores with other tribes unaffiliated with the extremists. And many of the al-Qaeda-related extremists have moved on to the neighboring province of Ninevah, which has seen a dramatic increase in violence this year. Even in Anbar itself, there has been an increase in factional fighting. A recent poll indicated that 62% of the population of that province rate local security negatively overall. In addition, there has been an increase in complaints regarding alleged human rights abuses by American and Iraqi government forces.

“One year ago, much of Baghdad was under siege. Schools were closed, markets were shuttered, and sectarian violence was spiraling out of control. Today, most of Baghdad’s neighborhoods are being patrolled by Coalition and Iraqi forces who live among the people they protect. Many schools and markets are reopening. Citizens are coming forward with vital intelligence. Sectarian killings are down. And ordinary life is beginning to return.”

Baghdad is still under siege. A recent report from the Government Accountability Office noted how “The average number of daily attacks against civilians remained about the same over the last six months; 25 in February versus 26 in July.” The Iraqi Interior ministry confirmed that there has been no drop in civilian deaths. Figures released by the Bush administration purporting to cite a decline in sectarian killings appear to be based on some rather arbitrary calculations, including a determination that being shot in the back of the head is a sectarian attack whereas being shot in the front of the head is a criminal act, even in cases where eyewitnesses indicated the frontal killing was indeed sectarian in motivation. All car bombings, even those apparently sectarian in motivation, are also excluded from Bush administration calculations.

If indeed there actually has been a slight decline in sectarian killings in Baghdad over the past six months, it could be attributed to the hundreds of thousands of Sunnis and Shiites who have fled mixed neighborhoods — at a rate of over 50,000 per month — into segregated enclaves, many with concrete walls erected around them to keep out militants from the other side.

Meanwhile, in a city where, prior to the U.S. invasion, kidnapping and power blackouts were rare, an average of forty people are kidnapped in Baghdad every day and electrical power is available only two to six hours.

This is what President Bush considers to be “ordinary life is beginning to return.”

“Iraq’s national leaders are getting some things done…”

Given that the stated purpose of the escalation in U.S. forces this year was to provide the political space for the Iraqi government to address the pressing political issues that would make peace possible, this is faint praise indeed. There is no major legislation pending on any of the most crucial issues, such as a plan to disarm the militias, and the legislature has barely managed a quorum since it returned form its extended summer vacation.

A recent report from the Government Accountability Office indicated that the Iraqi government had failed to meet eleven of the eighteen legislative, security and economic benchmarks set put forward by Congress and made only limited progress on four others, noting that “Key legislation has not been passed, violence remains high, and it is unclear whether the Iraqi government will spend $10 billion in reconstruction funds.” Ambassador Crocker and General Petreaus admitted there was little serious progress on the political front. The Iraqi cabinet has almost as many vacancies as sitting members.

The Associated Press reported on September 12 that the fundamentalist Shiite parties that dominate the Iraqi government feels no pressure for reform since they are confident that the United States will keep funding and troop levels high as long as Bush is president, so they are instead focusing their energies on shoring up their positions.

“And local reconciliation is taking place. The key now is to link this progress in the provinces to progress in Baghdad. As local politics change, so will national politics.”

Claims by President Bush of reconciliation around the provinces have little relation to reality. This may be in part because the Administration’s figures purporting to show a decline in sectarian violence exclude such tragic mass killings as the slaughter of 322 Yazidi Kurds in northern Iraq in August or the growing violence in Basra, Karbala and elsewhere in southern Iraq between rival Shiite factions. Estimates based on records from Iraqi morgues, hospitals and police headquarters around the country reveal that the numbers of civilians killed daily is almost twice as high as last year’s level. Six out of ten Iraqis in the recent poll indicate that their security situation has worsened since the surge began and only one out of ten say that it has improved. Seven out of ten believe that the surge has “hampered conditions for political dialogue, reconstruction and economic development.”

And, no matter what happens on the local level, there is no indication that the ruling Shiite political parties have any intention to sharing political power with the Sunni minority in any meaningful way.

“Our troops in Iraq are performing brilliantly. Along with Iraqi forces, they have captured or killed an average of more than 1,500 enemy fighters per month since January.”

Even while the U.S. military is capturing and killing fighters, new recruits are joining the insurgency at equal levels. The number of foreign fighters, estimated at between 700 and 2,000, does not appear to have decreased since 2005. The estimated size of Iraqi insurgents — somewhere between 16,000 and 30,000 — has also remained relatively constant. And, even as the prison population escalates, the levels of violence have not decreased. Instead of illustrating the capabilities of the U.S. armed forces, his statement about the number of killed and captured shows the futility of such operations in reducing the insurgencies. Like the infamously misleading “body counts” of the Vietnam War, they are not an adequate reflection of the how the war is going for U.S. forces.

“Because of this success, Gen. Petraeus believes we have now reached the point where we can maintain our security gains with fewer American forces. He has recommended that we not replace about 2,200 Marines scheduled to leave Anbar province later this month. In addition, he says it will soon be possible to bring home an Army combat brigade, for a total force reduction of 5,700 troops by Christmas. And he expects that by July, we will be able to reduce our troop levels in Iraq from 20 combat brigades to 15.”

In reality, there will be virtually no reduction of troops by December nor will there be a reduction of forces beyond the numbers prior to the pre-surge levels by next July. The Pentagon currently has plans to add an additional 4,000 Army troops by the end of the month, more than making up for the 2,200 Marines ending their tour of duty in Anbar and nearly making up for the 4,500 additional forces he plans to pull out by Christmas. Furthermore, the larger reduction of five combat brigades expected by next July will place the total number of combat troops at levels no less than there were prior to the start of the surge, when the Baker Commission — representing the consensus of the foreign policy establishment — called for the complete withdrawal of regular combat forces by that same month.

“The principle guiding my decisions on troop levels in Iraq is ‘return on success.’ The more successful we are, the more American troops can return home. And in all we do, I will ensure that our commanders on the ground have the troops and flexibility they need to defeat the enemy. . . . Americans want our country to be safe and our troops to begin coming home from Iraq. Yet those of us who believe success in Iraq is essential to our security, and those who believe we should bring our troops home, have been at odds. Now, because of the measure of success we are seeing in Iraq, we can begin seeing troops come home.

“The way forward I have described tonight makes it possible, for the first time in years, for people who have been on opposite sides of this difficult debate to come together.”

U.S. military commanders have made it clear that American forces simply cannot sustain the current level of combat troops in Iraq and there would need to be a withdrawal to pre-surge levels regardless of the situation on the ground. The drawdown recommended by General Petreaus and announced by President Bush had already been planned months ago as there will be insufficient fresh forces available to sustain the escalation. As a result, this is unlikely to appease those who want to bring the troops home.

“Return on success” is simply another version of the President’s strategy he outlined in June 2005, “Our strategy can be summed up this way: As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.” It is the same promise and policy that has not worked for the last two years.

“Over time, our troops will shift from leading operations, to partnering with Iraqi forces, and eventually to overwatching those forces. As this transition in our mission takes place, our troops will focus on a more limited set of tasks, including counterterrorism operations and training, equipping, and supporting Iraqi forces”

This promise has been made repeatedly over the past four years but is yet to be fulfilled. When President Bush announced the escalation in U.S. forces in January, he claimed that Iraqi forces would be responsible for security in most of the country by this November. In reality, Iraqi forces appear to be even less capable of taking part in military operations without U.S. leadership than they were at the time the surge began. In July, the White House admitted that there had been a “slight” reduction in the number of capable Iraqi units capable of operating independently while the GAO report noted that the number of capable Iraqi army units had declined from ten in March to just six in August. Over the past year, Americans have trained an additional 60,000 Iraqi forces, yet the U.S. forces are no closer to shifting their mode of operations from leading virtually all combat operations themselves.

Meanwhile, despite American efforts to arm and train the Iraqi police, U.S. Army General James Jones reported earlier this summer that Iraq’s police forces are completely dysfunctional and there is no realistic path of reforming them.

And let us not forget how General Petraeus, in a op-ed in the Washington Post just six weeks before Bush’s narrow re-election victory, wrote confidently about the “tangible progress” in building up “Iraqi security elements” so “to enable Iraqis to shoulder more of the load for their own security.” Three years and $450 billion later, Iraqis are no more able to take charge of their own security than they were when General Petreaus made his earlier optimistic prediction, raising questions as to what makes him and President Bush so confident now.

Finally, it is noteworthy that President Bush declared that the eventual goal for U.S. troops is “overwatching” — a term we could not locate in any dictionary — Iraqi forces. This suggests that allowing Iraqi forces to act independently is not even considered a long-range prospect anymore and that the Bush administration intends for American armed forces to ultimately be in charge of security in Iraq indefinitely.

“This vision for a reduced American presence also has the support of Iraqi leaders from all communities. At the same time, they understand that their success will require U.S. political, economic, and security engagement that extends beyond my presidency. These Iraqi leaders have asked for an enduring relationship with America. And we are ready to begin building that relationship — in a way that protects our interests in the region and requires many fewer American troops.”

This is totally false. Polls show that 79% percent of Iraqis oppose the presence of U.S. forces in their country and just 18% believe American troops are improving the security situation. Polls also indicate that a large majority oppose the neo-liberal economic model imposed by the United States on their country and the establishment of permanent military bases or any political alliance. Excluding the Kurdish minority in their autonomous enclave in the north, where the majority is still pro-American, these figures would show and even more dramatic opposition to any enduring political, economic and security engagement with the United States.

“If we were to be driven out of Iraq, extremists of all strains would be emboldened. Al Qaeda could gain new recruits and new sanctuaries.”

It cannot be stressed enough that there was no radical Islamist insurgency in Iraq until after the United States invaded and occupied that country in 2003. There was no “al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia” — that group was formed only after the U.S. invasion. And, except for a tiny enclave in the Kurdish region outside of Baghdad’s control, there were no sanctuaries for Islamist extremists prior to four and half years ago.

Consisting of no more than that 10% of the overall insurgency, al-Qaeda is in no position to carve out new sanctuaries in the event of an American withdrawal, particularly since its closest allies have turned on them.

“If we were to be driven out of Iraq, … Iran would benefit from the chaos and would be encouraged in its efforts to gain nuclear weapons and dominate the region.”

First of all, it is highly debatable as to whether Iraq would suffer from any more chaos than it does now under U.S. military occupation.

Secondly, Iran had very little influence in Iraq under its arch-enemy Saddam Hussein — a secular Sunni Baathist — but has come to exert considerable political influence following the U.S. invasion and occupation of that country and the subsequent decision by the Bush administration to support the rise of Shiite fundamentalist parties to ally against the Sunni-dominated insurgency. It is doubtful that Iran could have any more influence than it has today.

Finally, it is hard to see how a withdrawal of U.S. forces would further encourage Iran to pursue nuclear weapons. If anything, there are reasons to believe that Iran’s nuclear ambitions have been accelerated as a direct consequence of the U.S. invasion and occupation of its neighbors and subsequent threats by the United States to attack them as well.

“If we were to be driven out of Iraq…Extremists could control a key part of the global energy supply.”

Sunni extremists — in the form of the Wahhabi-dominated kingdom of Saudi Arabia — already control a key part of the global energy supply with little objections from the Bush administration, which sells billions of dollars of armaments and security assistance annually to that misogynist family dictatorship. And, in case less-acceptable extremists should end up in control of Iraq, the international community could simply refuse to buy the oil, as was done during part of Saddam Hussein’s reign, without a serious negative impact on global markets.

“If we were to be driven out of Iraq…Iraq could face a humanitarian nightmare.”

Iraq is already a humanitarian nightmare. Since the U.S. invasion, as many as 750,000 civilians have died as a result of the violence and disruption of basic services that have resulted. An estimated 2.6 million Iraqis have fled country and an addition 2.2 million Iraqis within that country have been displaced. There is no longer safe and reliable drinking water from any water works and only 30% of Iraqis have access to clean water of any kind, only half as many as there were at the time of the U.S. invasion.

“If we were to be driven out of Iraq… Democracy movements would be violently reversed.”

Unfortunately, there has been little progress toward democracy in the Middle East and there is a fair amount of evidence that the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the resulting chaos has actually set back pro-democracy movements in the region.

Furthermore, President Bush was unable to provide any evidence as to why a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would lead to the violent reversal in the few areas where pro-democracy movements in the region actually have made some progress in recent years, such as in Lebanon and Kuwait, which came as a result of indigenous movements based upon national issues irrespective of what was happening in Iraq.

“If we were to be driven out of Iraq… We would leave our children to face a far more dangerous world. And as we saw on September 11, 2001, those dangers can reach our cities and kill our people.”

The Iraqis who are fighting American forces in Iraq have nothing to do with those responsible for the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Indeed, none of the hijackers, none of the al-Qaeda leadership and none of the money trail came from Iraq. There is also serious question as to whether the insurgent group calling itself “al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia” has any formal affiliation with Osama bin Laden’s group or whether they just appropriated the name.

If the escalation in American troop strength in Iraq was really resulting in the finding and elimination of terrorists who could attack the United States, nobody would want to withdraw any troops. But this simply is not the case. Indeed, in response to a question by Republican Senator John Warner as to whether the administration’s policies in Iraq was really making the United States safer, General Petraeus replied, “Sir, I don’t know, actually.”

A National Intelligence Estimate prepared one year ago, based on analysis of all sixteen of America’s intelligence agencies, revealed that the U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation and counter-insurgency campaign had actually increased the threat to the United States from Islamic terrorism and had become the primary recruiting vehicle for a new generation of extremists from the Arab world and beyond. The longer the United States stays in Iraq, then, the greater this threat will grow.

Stephen Zunes is Middle East editor for Foreign Policy in Focus. He is a professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco and the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage Press, 2003.). Erik Leaver is the Carol and Ed Newman Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.