From the time it took office the Bush Administration has prided itself on "staying on message" and defining the terms and the language of public debate. We are always moving down "the way forward," the President always knows not only what needs to be done here, but how other countries should behave, and problems--most recently the scandal of the care given disabled veterans at Walter Reed--always belong to some one else. (Tony Snow passed that one over to the Defense Department the other day.) Now, in Iraq, the surge is going to impose security in Baghdad, win the confidence of the Iraqi people for the Maliki government, and continue, as Vice President Cheney said, our "great successes." All this makes it impossible for the press more than intermittently to focus on what is actually happening in Iraq because they always lead with what the Administration says. But some very committed people are keeping score in Iraq, many stories of internal Iraqi politics are coming out, and the truth can be discerned beneath all the blather.
To begin with, as I pointed out over a month ago, we are still losing, not winning, the war in Iraq. That does not mean our men are about to be driven out, but it does mean that the balance of power continues to shift in favor of the enemy. At the rate things are going we shall suffer at least 80 killed in action during the month of February. That will mean a total of 545 Americans killed in action during the last six months, compared to 369 Americans killed in action during the previous six months--an increase of nearly 50%. The number of wounded who did not immediately return to duty (a softer figure) has also increased, from 1257 in March-August 2006 to 1459 (estimated) for the last six months, and the number of wounded who did return to duty is up from 1782 to 2228 in the same period. The enemy is hitting more Americans, more lethally. The loss of half a dozen helicopters in recent weeks, which has contributed to the increased lethality, is a very worrying sign.
And despite some recent press reports, only a minority of those increases have taken place in Baghdad. The outstanding web site icasualties.org , from which these figures are taken, also prints casualties by province. For the March-August '05 period 176 Americans died in Anbar province, always the most violent, and 95 in Baghdad. The figures for the last six months are 199 in Anbar, 176 in Baghdad, which means that while things are getting worse in Baghdad they continue to deteriorate more slowly, from a higher base, in Anbar, as well. And although most provinces in the South seem to be quieting down, Diyala province, northwest of Baghdad along the Iranian border, has already seen more US deaths this year as in the whole of 2006--26 against 20.
The political situation in Iraq, meanwhile, is looking more and more like South Vietnam in 1963, with Prime Minister Maliki in the role of Ngo Dinh Diem. Both face a hostile religious minority--Sunnis (who have been fighting actively, of course, since the occupation) for Maliki, Buddhists for Diem. In both cases the American Administration is pushing them to be conciliatory--and in both cases, they are doing the opposite. For six months, from May 1963 until his overthrow in November, Diem refused to take any Buddhist complaints seriously. Maliki, the Los Angeles Times reports today, has done nothing to get a more moderate de-
Ba'athification policy in place in Iraq--a high American priority. And he has handled a Sunni woman's extraordinary accusations of rape by three Shi'ite soldiers in the most inflammatory possible way, almost immediately dismissing them and claiming that she is an insurgent sympathizer. The United States seems to be caught in the middle of that one, too, because the woman received treatment at an American medical facility, which presumably has a good idea of what actually occurred. Maliki seems to have failed the test that Stephen Hadley set up in his famous memo, but I doubt the Administration will dump him. For one, it would obviously be a most unpopular move; for another, neoconservatives generally hold the view that we lost Vietnam by getting rid of Ngo Dinh Diem. (I do not believe that and have written about it at length in American Tragedy, but it would take us too far afield to get into that now.)
In December and January I posted repeatedly about two alternative policies that the Administration seemed to be weighing: either continuing to push for national reconciliation, or simply "unleashing the Shi'ites." Paradoxically we seem officially to be pursuing the former, but in practice, the latter is continuing apace. That seems to be the most insuperable obstacle to creating the Iraq we had in mind. Another, of course, is the departure from Iraq of nearly two million refugees in the last four years, many of them from the middle class. That in turn is creating problems in Jordan and Syria. Vice President Cheney, meanwhile, is soaking up some media space by accusing Nancy Pelosi of favoring Al Queda. That one the Democrats should take on head on. It is the Administration's policies that have favored Al Queda: by confirming its image of the United States by occupying Muslim nations; by allowing Osama Bin Laden to escape and failing to get real Pakistani cooperation against him; and by creating long-term chaos in one of the richest nations of the Middle East.
How the next President might address all this is a question I owe it to myself and my readers to try to answer. I have been putting that one off, but I pledge to give it a try some time during the next week.