Our Delusional Hedgehog
In the beginning, George W. Bush sent American forces into Iraq with no apparent thought about the sectarian tensions that could explode once Saddam Hussein was ousted. Now, nearing the end of his presidency, Bush is sending more American forces into Iraq with no apparent regard for the verdict of the American people, rendered in November's election, that they've had it with his war. And, by the evidence of all available polling, with Bush himself.
The decline in Bush's support to Watergate-era Nixonian depths since he announced that his new Iraq policy was his old Iraq policy, only more so, stems, I suspect, from three conclusions that the public has reached about the president and his war. The first, simply, is that the war is no longer winnable and, worse, barely comprehensible since it has evolved into a Sunni-Shiite conflict. The second is that Bush, in all matters pertaining to his war, is a one-trick president who keeps doing the same thing over and over, never mind that it hasn't worked. In Isaiah Berlin's typology of leaders, Bush isn't merely a hedgehog who knows one thing rather than many things. He's a delusional hedgehog who knows one thing that isn't so.
The third, and politically most dangerous, conclusion is that Bush appears genuinely indifferent to the electoral judgment of the American people, who seem to believe that they are, in some vague sense, sovereign, at least on Election Day. The Post-ABC News poll released Monday, in which Bush's approval rating had sunk to a record-low 33 percent, also showed a corollary decline in the public's assessment of Bush's personal attributes. The two questions about Bush's personal qualities on which he polled the lowest, and that most closely mirrored his overall approval rating, concerned his willingness "to listen to different points of view" (36 percent) and his understanding of "the problems of people like you" (32 percent). Turns out that if you blow off the clear mandate of a national election, people actually notice.
In the war itself, meanwhile, our current policy has achieved new depths of senselessness. The administration is lining up support from our longtime Sunni allies in the region -- Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt in particular -- as a buffer against the spreading influence of Shiite Iran within Iraq and across the Middle East. Inside Iraq, meanwhile, we have cast our lot with the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a sectarian Shiite with long-standing ties to Iran, and hedged our bet by cultivating the support of another Shiite leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who is even closer to Iran.
Hakim heads the Iranian-backed Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). His deputy, Adel Abdul Mahdi, was in the running to become prime minister until the head of SCIRI's rival Shiite party, Moqtada al-Sadr, threw his support to Maliki. According to a New York Times report on Sunday, some administration officials are discussing quietly shifting our backing to Hakim's party. Others oppose this, pointing out that the raid in which U.S. forces seized Iranian operatives in Baghdad last month took place within Hakim's own compound.
More broadly, our plan for stability in Iraq is to bolster whichever Shiite administration governs the country, no matter its closeness to Iran, in the groundless hope that it will establish nonsectarian order. Our plan for stability in the region is to enlist Sunni states to contain Iran. These plans cancel each other out.
This isn't an example of Kissingerian subtlety -- waging the Cold War, for instance, by tilting toward China over the Soviet Union. This is an example of world-class incoherence, entirely of our own making. We charged into Iraq with some dim sense that Hussein's successor government would be headed by representatives of the long-persecuted Shiite majority, but we assumed that comity would prevail between the Shiites and the displaced Sunnis. Then we rendered that dicey proposition all but impossible by sacking the Iraqi army and most of the civil service -- in effect, plunging the Sunni population into mass unemployment with no prospect of reemployment. We fed the Sunni resistance, which fed the Shiite retaliation.
Now, we are stuck backing an Iran-friendly Shiite sectarian regime in Iraq, even as we plan to spend hundreds of millions in aid to the Lebanese army to fend off the Shiite sectarian forces of Hezbollah, and even as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice scuttles from one Sunni state to the next in an attempt to build a firewall around Iran. This is foreign policy as nonsense, as the American people have apparently figured out.