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Washington's mixed signals on Iraq

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The issue of Iraq has been rising persistently up the United States political agenda over the past six months, aided by the continuing casualties in Iraq and by Cindy Sheehan's month-long vigil outside President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas during the summer. But the manner in which it has come rapidly to the fore in recent weeks raises for the first time the possibility of a major change in official policy (see Jonathan Weisman & Charles Babbington, "Iraq War Debate Eclipses All Other Issues", Washington Post, 20 November 2005).

A particular surprise was the call on 17 November from a leading member of the House of Representatives, John Murtha, for a timetable for military withdrawal from Iraq. It is harder for the Bush administration to ignore such statements when they come from a Congressman of more than three decades’ standing, a decorated Vietnam-era marine corps veteran and a long-time supporter of the US military.

The most recent criticisms of the administration come in the wake of a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll of 11-13 November indicating that 63% of respondents disapproved of George W Bush’s handling of terrorism, against 48% in favour (the figures just over a year ago were 37%-60%).

If you find Paul Rogers’s weekly column on global security valuable, please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work

The White House’s response to its critics has been tough – even as it has strained every nerve to avoid impugning Murtha's patriotism. Dick Cheney has been particularly harsh in denouncing the growing number of opponents of the war; in routinely linking Iraq with 9/11 and the “war on terror”, he implies that critics of the US’s Iraq policy lack loyalty to the wider struggle in which the nation is enmeshed. His 21 November speech at the American Enterprise Institute was particularly vehement: while saying that “disagreement, argument, and debate are the essence of democracy”, the vice-president said those who “attacked us on 9/11 here in the homeland” are now “making a stand in Iraq”. Cheney accused the “few politicians” who are suggesting that “brave Americans were sent into battle for a deliberate falsehood” of “revisionism of the most corrupt and shameless variety."

An even stronger reaction has come from the neo-conservative press. Robert Kagan & William Kristol predict that a retreat from Iraq would lead to "carnage on a scale that would dwarf what is now occurring" ("Abandoning Iraq", Weekly Standard, 18 November 2005). This would be only the beginning, for “(what) if Zarqawi and his al-Qaida allies were able to make common cause with the Ba’athists and turn Iraq into a terrorist state or to provide a haven for terrorists, complete with an oil supply to finance their global activities?"

The formidable barrage of views the administration and its supporters can deploy in favour of continuing the war in Iraq and the wider “war on terror” may seem to make the prospects for a major change in policy look remote. Yet there are three signs of a shift in the political and intellectual landscape in Washington.

Iraq, Afghanistan…

The first is the suggestion from US military sources that American troop withdrawals from Iraq could start in early 2006, and that the current force of around 160,000 could be reduced by two-fifths by the end of next year. Another claim is that, depending on the security situation, 20,000 or more troops could start to be withdrawn in the next three months (see Bradley Graham and Robin Wright, "3 Brigades May Be Cut in Iraq Early in 2006”, Washington Post, 23 November 2005).

This proposal may be part of an effort to defuse the current controversy, and to respond to Democrats’ hopes of keeping the issue of the US’s entanglement in Iraq alive as the 2006 mid-sessional elections to Congress approach. The political appeal of withdrawal is evident too in light of the sustained high level of US casualties: in the first three weeks of November alone, US forces lost another sixty-eight soldiers killed and more than 400 injured, 150 of them seriously.

The second incipient sign of a change of attitude in Washington is connected to the situation in Afghanistan, where 18,000 US troops (as well as 12,000 from other Nato states) face an ongoing insurgency that is proving as difficult to control as that in Iraq, even if on a smaller scale.

The Kabul government of Hamid Karzai has belatedly recognised that the elusive Mullah Omar – deposed along with the Taliban regime he led by the United States invasion of October-November 2001 – still wields substantial authority over the Taliban and other militias. As a result it has used intermediaries with Mullah Omar to propose peace initiatives. Even more surprisingly, normally reliable sources indicate that the United States has itself employed intermediaries to open up its own links with Mullah Omar (see Syed Saleem Shahzad, "Time to talk: US engages the Taliban" Asia Times, 22 November 2005).

Whether these initiatives will lead anywhere is difficult to say. It seems that Mullah Omar and other Taliban operatives are not prepared to consider a ceasefire without a wholesale withdrawal of foreign troops. At a wider political level, the existence of such clandestine communications is itself highly significant: after all, Mullah Omar was regarded as second only to “public enemy number one” Osama bin Laden barely four years ago, yet Washington now seems ready to consider negotiations with him.

…and oil

The third sign of possible policy change in the United States is, in its way, even more remarkable. One of the most interesting features of the Washington scene in 2004 was the reconstitution of the Committee on the Present Danger, a singular collection of cold-war-era combatants who had been politically prominent during the Reagan era. This time round, they saw Islamic extremism as the natural successor to the evil empire of the Soviet Union, and advocated the usual mix of increased defence budgets and a vigorous pursuit of the “war on terror” as essential to US security.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

A collection of Paul Rogers’s Oxford Research Group briefings, Iraq and the War on Terror: Twelve Months of Insurgency, 2004-05 is published by IB Tauris (October 2005)

On that basis, it might be expected that a policy paper from the committee entitled "Oil and Security" would highlight the critical importance of maintaining the security of Persian Gulf oil resources. Not a bit of it. In fact the paper – written by George Shultz (secretary of state, 1982-89) and James Woolsey (head of the CIA, 1993-95) – argues strongly for the direct opposite: moving rapidly away from dependence on the Gulf.

The authors proclaim the case for hugely enhanced domestic production of bio-diesel and cellulosic ethanol for motor fuel, combined with the development of hybrid vehicle engines and, above all, an intensive programme to develop high-efficiency batteries. They do not go as far as advocating intensive use of renewable energy sources such as photovoltaics and wind power, but a result of much increased reliance on efficient battery technologies would be to make these technologies far more usable (see the advice to the British government in “The SWISH Report (3)”, 19 May 2005).

There is nothing particularly new about the Shultz-Woolsey analysis. Indeed, it is the kind of approach that has been argued repeatedly by environmentalists and others. What is significant is that it is coming from a source such as the Committee on the Present Danger. Similarly, many analysts have argued that much of the current conflict in the Gulf is really about control of oil – not least in openDemocracy, but also in works like Michael Klare's book Blood and Oil (Hamish Hamilton, 2004). Now, it is at last coming from within the political establishment.

What this means is that the issue of oil security may at last be coming out into the open in United States establishment political debate. This, along with the momentum in Iraq and Afghanistan, might just mean that the fundamentals of policy may be starting to change. These are still early days: real change will require much more than the sense of a few people in and around the administration beginning to come to the conclusion that the United States could well be losing control. But the ice, if not yet melting, may be cracking.

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