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Bush recasting the war as not just about Iraq

His recent speeches cite Iran and Al Qaeda as reasons the US must not pull out.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 5, 2007


It was hardly happenstance that President Bush chose to visit Iraq's Anbar Province on Monday – and not Baghdad – to set the stage for crucial congressional deliberations on US Iraq policy.

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To start, Anbar – a vast Sunni-dominated territory virtually written off a year ago as lost to extremist insurgents – represents the clearest accomplishment of the administration's strategy of having additional US troops work more closely with local populations.

But Mr. Bush's choice of Anbar also serves as a reminder of the potential consequences of a US pullout: Would Anbar be left open to the return of Al Qaeda-associated insurgents?

In fact, the emphasis on the province buttresses an argument that Bush has stressed recently: that US troops must stay in Iraq not just for the sake of Iraqis, but for US national security. (However, Bush did offer on Monday the possibility of future troop reductions, based on continued progress toward better security.)

Anbar, more so than Baghdad, is associated with the US war on terror and the fight against Al Qaeda. And in talking about Iraq, Bush has repeatedly cited Al Qaeda – and Iraq's troublesome neighbor Iran – as key reasons for staying the course.

"It's become the heart of the defense of why we should stay in Iraq for an indefinite period of time – that the consequences of withdrawal would be victory for one or both of those two" adversaries, says Rand Beers, director of the National Security Network, a Washington think tank consisting of mostly Democratic security and defense-policy specialists.

Bush's recent speeches

In recent speeches, Bush has lauded US military cooperation with Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar. Leaving now would reopen the door to Al Qaeda influences and domination, he says.

At the same time, Bush has warned that a US withdrawal from Iraq would open the way to Iranian domination – not just of Iraq, but of much of the Middle East. And that would mean the widened influence of a country that the US lists as a state sponsor of terrorism, as well as the potential for a nuclear arms race in the world's most volatile region, the president adds.

The reasons for this shift in justification for the "surge" strategy are basically two, analysts say. First, the original goal of promoting Iraqi political action and national reconciliation has not been met, even from the White House perspective.

The second reason for the shift has more to do with convincing a war-weary US public and restless Congress that the stakes in this war go well beyond uniting uncompromising Iraqi politicians.

With US soldiers dying as a result of the troop buildup but the US not seeming to get much back from Iraq's political leaders, associating the surge more closely with widely accepted US national interests – that is, defeating Al Qaeda and containing Iran – has a better chance of support. That goes for Congress as well as for the public, analysts say.

"The administration is tailoring its arguments to those most likely to achieve resonance with the American public, and focusing on Al Qaeda and Iran certainly strikes a responsive chord in the country that transcends the Republican base," says James Dobbins, director of international security and defense policy at the RAND Corp. in Arlington, Va.

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) study released Tuesday shows the Iraqi government failing 15 of 18 goals for security and political progress.

In disputing the negativity of the GAO report, the White House is emphasizing gains made at grass-roots levels and playing down the Iraqi government's inertia.