No Surge of Interest
by Aluf Benn
Israel's focus is still on Iran.
TEL AVIV, Israel
Iraq is the most under-reported story in Israel. Though only several hundred miles away, the violent events in Iraq appear to most Israelis as happening on another planet. Israeli officials refrain from talking about the war in Iraq, and therefore, the issue has no domestic political angle. The media reports it as foreign news, treating sectarian violence in Baghdad as some sort of natural disaster, next to stories about floods in China and earthquakes in India.
Saddam Hussein's execution received more attention, but even that unique event appeared to Israelis as curiosity, rather than invoking public discussion. A fierce enemy of the Jewish state, who had fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel during the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam was long forgotten since his ouster. Only Shimon Peres, alone among Israeli officials, congratulated his death penalty. The government kept silent.
Amid this backdrop, it is little wonder that President George W. Bush's major address on Iraq policy, on January 10, attracted only little attention here. Typically self-centered, the Israeli media paid far more attention to breaking news about the coming investigation of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on corruption allegations. Olmert was on an official visit to Beijing, and none of the traveling reporters even bothered to ask him about Bush's decision to send 20,000 more American troops to Iraq.
Despite some allegations to the contrary, Israel did not ask America to invade Iraq in 2003. Nevertheless, it was happy with the outcome: it's better to have the American army in Baghdad, however beaten, than Saddam's Republican Guard. Iraq had fought in several Arab-Israeli wars, and its demise reduced the risk of an "eastern front" of large conventional armies facing Israel. Moreover, with American troops fighting Iraqi insurgents, Israel's own military operations in the West Bank and Gaza are better understood and accepted. Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon blessed the invasion during its first successful months, but when it soured, he ordered Israeli officials to stay away from Iraq. He probably feared that Israel and its allies in Washington would be blamed for the fiasco if they keep talking about it.
Olmert, Sharon's successor, adhered to his former mentor's no-talk policy on Iraq. But last November, when news about possible American withdrawal started floating in anticipation of the Baker-Hamilton report, Olmert broke his silence. Calling on Bush at the White House, Olmert warned publicly against a "hasty American withdrawal" that might undermine the stability of moderate Arab states. His tone echoed the louder "don't-leave" messages from Riyadh and Amman, showing a united front of America's Mideast allies. According to Israeli officials, Bush has privately calmed Olmert and promised to stay in Iraq. However, even the prime minister's warning failed to raise public and media attention in Israel.
Israel's policymakers have a lot of interest in American involvement in the Middle East, but their attention is focused on Iran, not Iraq. Olmert et al. , want Bush to do away with Iran's nuclear program, which they view as an unbearable threat to Israel's security. Therefore, they were more interested in the last part of Bush's address, where the president pledged to "work with others to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating the region." Bush's announcement of sending another aircraft carrier to the Gulf signaled his commitment to stop the Iranian race to the bomb. From Israel's perspective, this was the good news in the president's address.
Aluf Benn is the diplomatic editor of the Israeli daily Ha'aretz and a contributing editor of The National Interest .
by Al Webb
With the words of an old military axiom that "you should never reinforce failure" being writ ever larger over the deepening quagmire, a critical rift between U.S. and British strategy has cracked the transatlantic alliance for the first time since allied forces exploded across the border into Iraq, bringing about Saddam Hussein's downfall nearly four years ago.
The tyrant's doom has come and gone, but what has been described as the "dance of death" goes on: more than 3,000 Americans shipped home again in body bags, ditto about 130 British troops and thousands more Iraqis, with 17,310 killed in the last six months alone, according to one of the many grim statistics that continue to haunt this conflict day by day.
What has not occurred since the opening volleys echoed across that beleaguered land in March 2003, as America's military made a beeline for Baghdad and British forces zeroed in on southern Basra, is anything resembling victory in the traditional sense. In its stead, failure threatens to attach itself to the whole enterprise-and the reaction to that possibility has begun to split the seemingly once-unshakeable alliance between Britain and America and its lame-duck leaders, President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair.
The seismic shift in strategy was exposed in Bush's decision to dispatch another 21,500 soldiers into the Iraqi cauldron while, almost simultaneously, Blair's government has begun work on urgent plans to pull several thousands of its troops out of the war-torn country. As diplomatic correspondent David Blair of London's Daily Telegraph newspaper put it, "as Mr. Bush's forces are ‘surging in', Britain's are trickling out."
Although 27 nations form the so-called "multi-national force" are operating in Iraq, the project has been a U.S.-British show since the ink was still damp on the first war plan. Now, the Bush-Blair "best pals" act is ending with not so much a bang as a barely audible whimper. There was no ballyhooed summit between president and prime minister to plot the way past a critical juncture in the Iraq conflict, no evidence of any high-level consultation between Washington and London ahead of the fait accompli of the potentially fateful decision that could further move the two key allies in opposite directions.
Meanwhile, the operative phrase here is "lame duck." In Bush's case, the shipping of another 21,500 troops to the war zone is geared towards avoiding any notion of defeat ahead of the president's departure from the White House in two years' time. That, coupled with his rejection of the Iraq Study Group's central recommendations last month that troops be withdrawn by early 2008, suggests that if anything, Bush might be prepared to add more Americans to the allied mix (of which it already accounts for 86 percent).
Tony Blair is even more of a lame duck. He already has announced that he will step down as prime minister sometime this year and that-amid opposition to the war that seems to grow on a daily basis-would indicate he is ready to heed that military maxim about not reinforcing failure (or, in poker jargon, not throwing good money after bad). The prime minister was sunning himself in Florida when President Bush announced his latest troop "surge" in Iraq and, for the first time in perhaps years, appears not terribly upset about what the Americans might, or might not, be getting up to. At least, it's been a few weeks since he was last publicly tormented as Bush's "poodle" on the world diplomatic stage.
The subsiding of that unflattering metaphor is probably due to the advent of Blair's resignation and the expectation that he will, in a matter of weeks, announce that Britain will pull nearly 3,000 of its 7,200 troops out of Iraq by the end of May.
The prime minister is soft-shoeing any problems he might have with the Bush administration over Iraq, telling Parliament that Britain's military responsibilities in the Basra area of southern Iraq "differ in some very critical aspects" from the pressures U.S. forces are facing in the turbulent capital, Baghdad. But there is a stark divergence between Washington and London, and as it grows, so too do the efforts of Blair's spin doctors to, as Telegraph correspondent David Blair put it, downgrade "their definition of what ‘success' in Iraq would mean."
For example, General Richard Shirreff, commander of British forces in Basra, was widely quoted last month as saying he would be satisfied with "60 percent success." But as the tectonic plates of diplomacy and war-making shift, and shift yet again, the bloodshed goes on, and the end is not in sight even for the British, whose policy of eventually handing over more control and responsibility to Iraqi forces is a risky one that could backfire.
The reality here is that only a relatively small number of local army and police are loyal to the present regime that holds power in Baghdad. Most of them, as British military historian Max Hastings points out, "look instead to their tribes and factions" as the true sources of power. Whether ultimate failure is America's future in Iraq, or whether refusing to reinforce failure will make one iota of difference for either the United States or Britain in the long run, only the months and years ahead will tell.
But one near-certainty is that come the day the results are finally in, both George Bush and Tony Blair will have long since given up their power to have any say-so in either the glory or the anguish that is the legacy of Iraq.