June 14, 2006
Much like his surprise visit to Iraq for Thanksgiving in 2003, President Bush's visit yesterday was unannounced and almost exclusively symbolic in nature. There's nothing wrong with that, and on the heels of the death of Abu Musab Zarqawi, it was indeed high time for such a morale-boosting gesture. The fact that Prime Minister Maliki was not notified that Bush was in Baghdad until five minutes before the meeting was obviously awkward, but few people would question the need for such extraordinary security measures. Perhaps in another two years Iraq will be sufficiently pacified that Bush could make an appearance in a friendly city, such as Kirkuk (in the Kurdish homeland) or Basra (the southern Shiite bastion). Or perhaps not. The upsurge in car bombings, ethnic strife, and U.S. combat deaths in recent months are an undeniable negative sign, and it may not be possible to withdraw a significant number of U.S. troops until next year.
Fighting off fatigue in his Rose Garden press conference this morning, Bush did quite well, showing both unshakeable resolve and a sober appreciation for the challenges we face in Iraq. (See transcript at whitehouse.gov.) He didn't mince words about the likely continued mayhem for the foreseeable future. It may not convince the hard-core anti-war people, but it will at least reassure moderate skeptics that Bush and his advisers are keenly aware the battlefield situation in Iraq, and public sentiment in the U.S. I was especially glad that Bush emphasized, "Success in Iraq depends on the Iraqis," though he avoided the question of what we will do if they fail to get their act together. (Taking such a prospect seriously would cast doubt in Iraqi eyes about the depth of U.S. commitment. Once again*, Bush tacitly accepted criticism for some past decisions, but denied he had any doubt that the basic decision to go to war was correct. As he concluded, "it's worth it, it is necessary, and we will succeed."
* I thought it was appropriate when Bush recently expressed regret for having said "Bring it on!" in 2003, before the strength of the terrorist insurgency was fully understood. Taunting evil people is usually not a good idea.
Meanwhile, some Democrats are calling for complete withdrawal from Iraq by the end of 2007. One notable exception is Sen. Hillary Clinton, who was booed for taking realistic position on this. Any sensible person knows that setting a fixed deadline for withdrawal plays into the enemy's hands. The only sincere alternative policy is a rapid, unconditional withdrawal, along the lines proposed by Rep. John Murtha -- in other words, admitting defeat.
It is interesting to contrast Iraq to East Timor, where public order has broken down in recent months. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan blamed the chaos on the premature withdrawal of troops by the United States and other countries, announcing that additional U.N. troops (Australians) will be sent to East Timor by early next year. See Washington Post. The high-profile role of Australian armed forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, and East Timor in recent years puts that country on almost the same level as Britain or France; perhaps they should be admitted to the G-8, replacing Russia. East Timor is a very sobering lesson about the limited usefulness of U.N. peacekeeping operations. It's a situation much like Bosnia or Kosovo: A regional minority group had been repressed by an army they regarded as alien occupiers, and gained independence in large part as the result of peacekeeping troops from Western countries. Whenever my classes covered peacekeeping, I always cited East Timor as the best example of how the United Nations sometimes can help to pacify strife-torn countries. Well, maybe not.
In the Washington Post Outlook section two Sundays ago, Joshua Kurlantzick related his personal experience in that tragedy. He thinks the tensions resulted from the desire by the East Timorese elites, who spent most of the 1975-1999 period in exile, to make Portuguese the national language, even though most common people do not speak it. Corruption among the newly empowered political leaders in East Timor is another big problem.
Donald Sensing, who has resumed blogging on a semi-regular basis, to my delight, reflects on the 231st anniversary of the establishment of the United States Army.