Iraq: now it’s a ‘gesture invasion’

President Bush's surge of an extra 20,000 troops is a political stunt rather than a military tactic.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Something about President George W Bush’s ‘surge’ in Iraq just doesn’t add up.

At the end of last week Bush announced that 21,500 more American troops would be sent to Iraq as part of a ‘change in strategy’ that will ‘help us succeed in the fight against terror’. The majority of these – 17,500 – will be posted in Baghdad, where there has been some awful and bloody sectarian violence in recent months.

However, there are already some 140,000 American troops and 300,000 US-trained Iraqi forces in Iraq; there are also an estimated 80,000 civilian contractors, or ‘mercenaries’, in the pay of the US military (1). That’s a fairly formidable-sounding army of 520,000 – more than enough, surely, to take on the disparate insurgent forces and patrol and control Baghdad and other cities. What possible real difference could an extra 21,500 troops – who are ordinary ‘grunts’ rather than super marines with special counterinsurgency experience – make to this massive armed force? The ex-general and hawks who support a ‘re-invasion’ of Iraq have talked about the need for around 50,000 more troops; so Bush’s smaller surge doesn’t seem to be part of any re-invading plan.

To put the current figure of 520,000 in perspective, this collection of US troops, Iraqi allies and mercenaries is close to the total number of US servicemen deployed at the height of the Vietnam War. In 1969, there were 553,000 US servicemen in Vietnam (not including their allies in the considerable South Vietnamese army, of course), and they were engaged in a real and prolonged conflict with a well-organised enemy: the North Vietnamese Army was 570,000-strong by the early 1970s, organised into 18 infantry divisions, two training divisions and 10 regiments of artillery, and with 30,000 supporting Viet Cong guerrillas in South Vietnam. These forces were supported by two of the most powerful nations on Earth: the Soviet Union and China.

In Iraq, by massive contrast, there is no national liberation army, let alone one on the same scale as the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong; instead, there are small and isolated insurgent groups that appear to have neither a military strategy nor a political programme and whose weapons of choice are the car bomb and YouTube. Yet apparently America needs half-a-million forces to deal with their threat, and for good measure it requires a ‘surge’ of another 21,500 (because apparently 520,000 just isn’t enough) to help out. It doesn’t add up.

There’s also the question of why 21,500 new troops are being brought in to take part in counterinsurgency operations when many of the 140,000 American troops already in Iraq seem to be doing little of note. US troops are patrolling less frequently and engaging in fewer clashes with insurgent forces. As the Washington Post has reported, America’s strategy in Iraq seems to be to hide away. US forces tend to be ‘concentrated at strategic hubs’ – also know as ‘enduring bases’ – from which they ‘provide logistical support and emergency combat assistance’ to Iraqi forces. The longer-term plan seems to be to occupy Iraq from without, with US Central Command looking to carry out ‘strategic overwatch’ from bases in Kuwait (2).

Why then, when there are already 140,000 American troops in Iraq not engaged in any serious long-term battles, are another 21,500 being drafted in to assist Iraqi forces in the battle against Baghdad militants? Again, it doesn’t add up.

Finally, if the US military is serious about ‘sanitising’ Baghdad (its words), which has predictably been described by its anti-war critics as an attempt to strengthen the occupation of Iraq and prepare for attacks on Iran and Syria, why is the surge being given such a short timeframe in which to succeed? According to the BBC, American and Iraqi officials are talking about needing results within ‘two to three months’ (3). Far from the surge signalling an American re-conquest of Baghdad, the US is putting much energy into equipping and training Iraqi forces to do the real work of ‘holding’ Baghdad suburbs – the strategy is known as ‘clear and hold’, where America will provide back-up to Iraqi forces during the ‘clear’ stage (when insurgents are cleared from the streets) and then encourage Iraqi forces to ‘hold’ those streets.

Indeed, so keen is the US military to hand responsibility to Iraqis that, according to one report, it has started to cut off fuel supplies to the Iraqi forces. This is because US officials are ‘desperate to wean [Iraqi forces] from US dependency’ and force them to supply and organise themselves (4). For all the talk of America ‘getting serious’, ‘hunkering down’ or ‘re-invading Iraq’, it seems to want out rather than in, seeing the surge as a chance further to wash its hands of the mess its war created.

So what is this surge all about? Why bring in an extra 20,000 troops when, as most strategists argue, they will make little difference, in a country where there are already 140,000 American troops behind the walls of fortified compounds? Too many have tried to understand Bush’s surge in relation to what is happening on the ground in Iraq and the Middle East, with his supporters (there are still some around) describing it as a serious attempt to combat ‘evil’ insurgents, and his critics viewing it as a belligerent measure intended to preserve American power in Iraq and fire a warning signal to Iran and Syria.

In truth, the reason Bush’s surge seems to make little sense as a military tactic is because, fundamentally, it is not a military tactic. It is a political stunt. Bush is sending 20,000 more troops into Iraq in response to events in America rather than events in Iraq. We’ve had ‘gesture politics’; now we have a ‘gesture invasion’, the deployment of thousands of armed men, in a short burst for a short period of time, in a bid to demonstrate a government’s seriousness and resolve.

Bush and his supporters are increasingly isolated and deflated at home. They were given a drubbing in last year’s mid-term elections; a recent bipartisan report described Iraq as a disaster; more and more Republicans are speaking out against the Iraq venture; and everything the Bushies touch seems to stir up controversy and ridicule. In such circumstances, Bush and his coterie are sending troops to Iraq in a desperate attempt to show that they should be taken seriously. These 20,000 troops are being deployed less to bring stability to the streets of Iraq than to create an impression of moral certainty in the corridors of power in America.

Consider another curious thing about Bush’s surge: it seems that the more the various casus belli given for invading Iraq fall by the wayside, the more determined Bush becomes to ‘see it through’. See what through, exactly? The original claims about Saddam having ‘weapons of mass murder’ were bogus, so ‘seeing through’ the disarmament of an apparently world-threatening Ba’athist regime is no longer on the cards. The other casus belli – the idea that Ba’athist Iraq provided a safe haven for al-Qaeda – was also false, though the postwar mess has tended to attract al-Qaeda-style militants from around the Middle East and north Africa. Then there was the claim that the war was about removing the Ba’athists from power on the basis of their human rights abuses, thought up once the WMD and al-Qaeda things had fallen through. That has been achieved, in a fashion, with the hanging of Saddam and some of his cronies, so Bush has little to ‘see through’ in terms of routing the core Saddamites.

‘Seeing it through’ has become a mantra in Bush circles, not because there is something specific they are keen to see through, but rather as an indicator of their apparent staying power and resolve. In his statement to the nation about the Iraqi surge, Bush openly talked about ‘defying’ naysayers and proving that he is true to his word. ‘Times of testing reveal the character of a nation’, he said. ‘And throughout our history, Americans have always defied the pessimists and seen our faith in freedom redeemed.’ Vice president Dick Cheney spelled it out more clearly, arguing in a TV interview: ‘This is an existential conflict. We have to prevail, and we have to have the stomach for the fight, long term.’ (5) Again, Cheney said little about what America is fighting for, or what casus belli it is pursuing this time around; rather it seems to be the fight itself that matters, and proving that the Bush administration has the ‘stomach’ for it.

This is the nature of Bush’s surge: it is a response to an ‘existential’ crisis in America rather than the bloody crisis in Iraq. The Bush administration has little desire to stay in Iraq; it has spent the past four years since the declaration of an end to hostilities hurriedly handing sovereignty and responsibility to often ill-prepared Iraqi forces (see The phantom occupation of Iraq, by Brendan O’Neill). But it hopes that a relatively small and time-specific burst of troop deployment will at least give an impression of longevity and commitment; that these 20,000 soldiers will provide physical evidence that the Bush administration remains clear-headed and steadfast over Iraq, and more broadly, where no political evidence for such steadfastness exists. There is something deeply decadent and archaic about the surge: Bush is effectively using the army for his own individual and cynical purposes, sending 20,000 men into battle (of sorts) in an attempt to prove his critics wrong. Like an old emperor surrounded by doubters, he is sending men to march up and down in an attempt to show that he has still got what it takes.

The surge has also exposed the cynicism and cowardice of the Democrats. For all the claims that the Democrats made gains in the mid-terms on the basis of an ‘anti-war ticket’, they have singularly failed to offer any coherent alternative to Bush’s surge. Indeed, some Democrats have said that more troops should be sent, to show that America is truly committed to Iraq – putting the supposedly ‘anti-war’ party in the peculiar position of demanding a bigger occupation force while also saying that the occupation should ultimately be wound down. One thing that has certainly ‘surged’ to the surface following Bush’s announcement is yet further evidence of disarray within the American political class.

The surge has shown up the true nature of the war. It was never about disarming Iraq or routing non-existent al-Qaeda cells; nor was it about conquering the Middle East for power and profit. Rather it was motivated by domestic crises. America invaded Iraq not with a mission but in search of one; its intervention was driven, not by old-style quests for territory, but by a desire for moral renovation on the part of a confused and crisis-ridden elite. At a time when the Bush administration seems incapacitated and directionless at home, the aim was to pose as a morally serious actor in the seemingly more black-and-white territory of far-off warzones. In this sense, the surge is farce repeated as even bigger farce, with the Bush administration now trying to boost its flagging moral authority by sending a few thousand troops to do something in Baghdad for a couple of months.

Yet just as the arrival of these surging soldiers will not fill the hole at the heart of Iraqi society, nor will their deployment fix the problems in American politics and society.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Kissing off Saddam, Eric Margolis, Peace, Earth and Justice News, 8 January 2007

(2) Iraq Facilities, Global Security, 2006

(3) Quick results needed from Bush Iraq plan, BBC News, 12 January 2007

(4) Soldiers Doubt Influx Of US Troops Will Benefit Iraqi Army, Free Internet Press, 11 January 2007

(5) Cheney: war critics don’t have ‘stomach’ for the fight, New York Post, 15 January 2007

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Topics Politics


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