President "the Decider" Bush has apparently decided for the time being to hope for a miraculous improvement of conditions on the ground in Iraq that would obviate the need for change. But barring such a miracle, the suggestions of both the Baker-Hamilton Commission and the outgoing secretary of defense will probably wend their way into his speeches and policy sometime before the president leaves office. In the final analysis, we won't withdraw from Iraq, but we'll draw down. We won't pull troops out, but we'll pull them back-to Kuwait and other rear operating bases-to act as a firewall around a powder keg. Containment will be the winning, new-old option.
Instead of containing secular Saddam Hussein's irredentist ambitions in Iraq, we will now be containing Shi‘a (Iranian) and Sunni (Al-Qaeda) religious ambitions; trading bases in Saudi Arabia for ones in Kuwait and Qatar; and no-fly zones for no-die zones. It's a tragic irony, of course. Pulling troops back to Kuwait means returning full circle to the prewar containment policy that Bush in 2002 claimed wasn't working-even though both his national security adviser and secretary of state had earlier said it was.
One of the key recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, led by H.W. Bush's fixer James A. Baker III, argues for "redeployment" of combat units to Kuwait and other bases in the Gulf where they can keep an eye on things in Iraq, and contain them if they get too far out of hand, though it's hard to imagine things getting any worse.
"Even after the United States has moved all combat brigades out of Iraq, we would maintain a considerable military presence in the region, with our still significant force in Iraq and with our powerful air, ground, and naval deployments in Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar", the report advises. That's also one of the parting recommendations of Bush's erstwhile defense secretary.
Before 9/11, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell assured the public that Saddam Hussein's nuclear ambitions and regional adventurism had been successfully checked by UN sanctions and U.S. air power stationed nearby.
"We should constantly be reviewing our policies", Powell told reporters in Egypt, but "frankly, they have worked." Saddam "has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction", he added at the Feb. 24, 2001 press conference. "He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbors", much less the United States. Powell had it right the first time, before he agreed to read Scooter Libby's moldy, half-baked intelligence gathered from scraps of defector lies before the UN.
Several months later, Rice echoed Powell by arguing the administration's decision to continue sanctions and sorties in the north and south of Iraq was working to keep Saddam in a box.
"We have made progress on the sanctions", she told CNN on July 29, 2001. "In terms of Saddam Hussein being there, let's remember that his country is divided, in effect. He does not control the northern part of his country. We are able to keep arms from him. His military forces have not been rebuilt."
In other words, the "brutal tyrant" Bush later demonized as a "direct threat to this country, to our people" had been neutered, de-clawed and house trained and wasn't even a threat to his neighbors.
With the likely return to a policy of containment in Iraq, the administration has taken us right back where we started: the postwar strategy that the first Bush Administration had brokered 15 years earlier. Had we continued with that strategy, today 3,000 dead GIs would be alive and celebrating the holidays with their families, another 20,000 would still have all their limbs, and hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians would never have been "liberated" from their own lives and limbs.
In addition, the Treasury would have half a trillion more dollars in it. In fact, the Baker report estimates we will have churned through $2 trillion when it's all said and done in Iraq, while chewing up the equivalent of two full army divisions in casualties and wasting even more innocent Iraqi lives than Saddam-all to prove there was no need to invade and occupy Iraq in the first place.
Meanwhile, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda have reclaimed parts of Afghanistan while exporting terrorists to London from new camps they set up inside Pakistan. Osama bin Laden must be doubled over right now, not from kidney failure (more false propaganda), but from glee at our ineptitude.
The incoming Democratic majority has already ruled out a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq as too risky. They too will opt for the safe compromise of redeployment to the margins of that failed state. We won't go big. Or long. Or home. But back to what was working in 2002 and the decade before that.
So in the end, when his nibs finally decides to stop fiddling, the prevailing policy will look a lot like the prewar containment policy of the first postwar strategy that everyone, including his father, agreed was working-and cost a hell of a lot less in blood and treasure.
Paul Sperry is a Hoover Institution media fellow and author of Infiltration (NelsonCurrent, 2005) and Crude Politics (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003). He can be reached at [email protected].