The amazing thing is that it has taken this long. More than 1,800 American soldiers have died since the Iraq war began and ten thousand have been left with terrible wounds. Yet only now is a significant anti-war movement getting off the ground in the US, with Cindy Sheehan’s highly publicised vigil outside President Bush’s Texas ranch on behalf of her dead soldier son, Casey.
Some sixty thousand anti-war activists have registered support for Ms Sheehan. That may not seem a lot - after all, hundreds of thousands of Americans marched against the war before the invasion of Baghdad. But in USA it is seen as deeply unpatriotic to question a war while American soldiers are still fighting it. However, Sheehan's heartfelt call for Bush to explain what her son died for has captured the imagination of the nation's media.
Comparisons are inevitably being drawn with Vietnam., not least because President Bush’s popularity ratings have sunk to levels unseen since the days of Lyndon Johnson. One difference is that the anti war movement in the sixties was driven, not by service moms, but by young men who didn’t want to be drafted. There is no prospect of a return to the draft in Iraq, even though the military is finding it extremely hard to recruit soldiers. It is unprecedented for a war fought by professional soldiers to arouse such vocal public opposition.
As the death toll climbs inexorably toward 2,000 there are now serious doubts about whether America has the stomach for a protracted occupation lasting six to ten years, which is what military planners have been talking about. That could mean another 6,000 bereaved mothers taking their grief to the President’s doorstep.
It seems incredible now, but Americans were told that there would be no casualties at all in Iraq. This was to be a new kind of war, where smart weapons and overwhelming military strength would make resistance futile. This was why America deployed so few troops and gave little thought to how the run Iraq after it was ‘liberated’. On May 1st 2003, George W Bush declared that all major combat operations had ceased, in what must rank as the most premature declaration of victory in the history of human conflict.
But this is a war no one wants to fight any more, not even the military. Pentagon chiefs have already said that they hope to bring 30,000 home next spring. Britain is planning to cut troop strength in Iraq from 9,000 to 3,500 in the next year. It looks like a withdrawal and has led some to speculate that the coalition intends to ‘cut and run’.
Chance would be a fine thing. There seems little prospect of any early disengagement, even if the Iraqi ethnic groups agree a new constitution tomorrow when the second deadline expires. America was clearly hoping that the Middle East would turn the corner this summer. The withdrawal of Israeli troops from occupied Gaza was carefully choreographed to coincide with the new constitution in Iraq.
With progress over Palestine (not that the Palestinians in the still Israeli-occupied West Bank would recognise it as such) and a democratic constitution in place for Iraq, the Americans could have returned claiming some sort of victory and announced the job done.
However, right now, a withdrawal from Iraq would look like a victory for the insurgents. The lightly-armed militias have proved terrifyingly effective in keeping up the pressure with suicide bombs and, increasingly, with more sophisticated remotely-controlled detonations. The mujahideen are better organised and trained than they were last year, and unlike America, there seems no shortage of recruits to the cause of Jihad.
But it isn’t just the insurgency that could keep America in this quagmire for years. If America pulled out tomorrow, there would very likely be civil war. The Kurds in the North are determined to have an autonomous Kurdistan, and have demanded that the oil-rich region of Kirkuk should be part of it.
Unlike the Sunni Muslims in the centre of Iraq and the Shia in the south, the Kurds are intensely pro-American and want nothing of the Islamic theocracy that is likely to emerge in most of the country. It’s a little like Ulster in the 1920s after the creation of the Irish Free State. Like the Ulstermen, the Kurds are also determined to keep their Peshmerga armed forces.
If American troops withdrew tomorrow, the insecurity on both sides would be difficult to contain, especially since most of the country remains shattered and filled with armed Islamic fundamentalists. The suicide bombers who have been targeting the Americans would likely turn to the secular Kurds. The Sunnis and the Shia, meanwhile, would no doubt pursue their own theological dispute on the streets in the traditional bloody manner.
There is no escaping the obvious. The invasion of Iraq was a massive miscalculation by right wing ideologues in the Republican Party who believed that America had to assert its military hegemony. They were intoxicated by the sales talk of the arms industry which told them that it was possible now to win wars without casualties and that Iraq would instantly become a beacon of democracy in the Middle East. Wrong on both counts.
Whatever government finally emerges, it’s clear that most of the country will become an introverted Islamic Republic, closer to Iran than America. In Basra, fundamentalism already has a power base. What will the service moms say when they discover their boys sacrificed their lives to create another Islamic dictatorship which loathes America and everything it stands for? Which treats women as second-class citizens and persecutes non believers? Which regards Christianity as evil?
The Project for a New American Century is in ruins. The neo-conservatives, who dreamed up the new American imperialism, and inspired Bush on his reckless military adventures, have achieve precisely the reverse of what they intended. Instead of America assuming the role of invincible world policeman, the greatest military power on the planet has been shown to be extremely vulnerable. A handful of mujahideen have been able to nail America down, just as they nailed down the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. America is looking isolated, unable to look to support from its traditional allies in Europe (Blair excepted), and now faced with defeatism at home.
Even those of us who opposed the war from the start cannot but feel worried about the consequences of America’s imminent humiliation. It could mean a return to US isolationism. Who in future is going to challenge Serbian Fascists, North Korean expansionists, African dictators? America’s stumble could make us all fall on our faces.
Which is why America needs to act now. It should go to the United Nations and invite the international community to organise a phased withdrawal from Iraq. Only the united forces of Europe, Asia and most importantly the Islamic world, can help America out of this mess now.
Unless an exit strategy is found, George W. Bush faces a rapid descent into chaos followed by a military rout and an epoch-making defeat of the Republican Party at the Presidential elections in 2008. Condoleezza Rice, who is emerging as the most likely to succeed Bush, has little chance of becoming the first black woman in the White House unless she finds a way to withdraw with dignity.
If Tony Blair wasn’t so deeply implicated in this fiasco, he might have been the one to help America out of the hole of its own making. The PM promised that, with America’s help, he could rid the world of tyrants, failed states, facist regimes. Instead, the world’s dictators are sleeping more easily in their beds. And angry mothers are shouting at Bush’s bedroom window.