President Bush speaks bravely about the need to "finish the job" in Iraq. The consequences of leaving that violence-torn country in the grip of a messy civil war are indeed grave. But reality suggests that he is taking a risk for the last time on any major US military involvement there.
The surge of some 21,500 new US troops into Baghdad will take place, but unforthcoming seems the political solution from the factionalized Iraqi government that many argue must go hand in hand with the military operation.
At home, too, in the United States, politics are not going the president's way on Iraq. The Demo- crat-controlled Congress is demanding a specific end to the US military presence. Some Republicans, especially those facing reelection challenges next year, are tetchy and rebellious. Antiwar rallies such as the one we witnessed in the nation's capital this past weekend are somber reminders of the clamor against the Vietnam War in its last phases.
Polls show that public confidence in the president is sharply down. American will on the war is waning. Even columnist David Brooks, installed on The New York Times Op-Ed page as the paper's token conservative successor to William Safire, has just written a couple of columns forsaking unity, and promoting "soft partition" of Iraq between Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites.
In order to avoid a political debacle for the Republican Party in next year's elections, Mr. Bush will almost surely slash the US troop presence in Iraq to a modest force by mid-2008.
Of course, there are some slender straws to grasp at. In a speech to his parliament last week, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki vowed that his crackdown in Baghdad will leave militants nowhere to hide.
Then a representative of the Mahdi Army, the largest military force in Iraq after the US military, is reported to have put out feelers to senior British and US commanders for a kind of stand-down. Rahim al-Daraji, mayor of Sadr City, the Shiite militia's stronghold, reportedly declared militiamen could be instructed not to carry their weapons in public, if the US military could guarantee better security for Sadr City.
Though this sounds marginally interesting, does it mean that the Mahdi Army is in a more cooperative mode? Or does it mean that the Mahdi Army is fearful of engaging the US military machine, commanded to clear Baghdad of insurgents, and will simply fade into the woodwork, reemerging once the American soldiers have gone?
Meanwhile, US troops are engaged in the worst kind of fighting that infantrymen dread, house-to-house fighting in an urban community, against guerrillas that meld with a civilian populace.
Meanwhile, this American preoccupation with Iraq and the Middle East is permitting China and Russia to extend their influence in other crucial areas of the world with little fear of US reaction. China has lately been waging an economic offensive in Latin America and Africa, partly to tie up oil supply in these regions for use by the fast-growing Chinese economy.
Last week, Beijing announced that President Hu Jintao would take an unusual diplomatic initiative in Sudan to help settle the genocidal killing of some 200,000 people in the Darfur region of that country. The killings have been mainly of black tribal people at the hands of government-supported Arab militias known as the janjaweed. China has a vested interest in Sudan, buying the bulk of its oil exports.
While there has been much hand-wringing in the West over the violence in Darfur, there has been little effective action. As part of its increasing activity on the world stage, China now seeks to fill that vacuum.
Although Russia has been occupied with internal political and economic problems, it, too, is seeking more stature on the international scene. President Vladimir Putin was busy in New Delhi last week consolidating his country's relationship with India. India is a country that the US has been wooing as a counterweight to China in Asia. Bush, in an unusual move, recently signed an agreement permitting India, which has tested nuclear weapons, to buy new nuclear technology for civilian nuclear development. It signaled US recognition of India's importance as an ally in Asia.
Both China and Russia have been the most protective members in the UN Security Council of Iran, blocking US attempts to take more punitive steps against Iran for continuing its nuclear development program.
Says one US diplomat: "While the cat [the US] is away [in Iraq], the mice [China, Russia, Iran] feel free to play."
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is currently a professor of communications at Brigham Young University.