It is one of the paradoxes of modern politics that the presence of the US-led coalition in Iraq which was hardly raised during the Iraqi election campaign is emerging as the number one issue in the American mid-term elections in 11 months' time.
President George W. Bush and his key aides tackle the issue by saying that the whole thing depends on "conditions on the ground in Iraq."
But anyone with any knowledge of what is going on in Iraq would know things are not as simple as that. In fact, had things depended on "conditions on the ground in Iraq" the issue might not have generated so much heat.
The truth is that this "whole thing" about withdrawal depends on conditions on the ground not in Iraq but in the United States. Calling for withdrawal from Iraq is used by Bush's opponents at home as a prop to cover their failure to offer a coherent alternative to the administration's basic domestic and foreign policy options.
Domestically, attempts at inciting people to envy and worse with reference to Bush's tax cuts have failed to fly. Most Americans seem to like the cuts, although they do not all enjoy them in equal measure. Nor is there any sign of the recession that has been forecast almost daily by the anti-Bush camp for the past three years. Efforts to make an issue of Bush's educational reform program also failed because the teachers, most of whom vote Democrat, appear to like the measures proposed by the president. Even the Katrina calamity, which seemed so full of promise for a bit of Bush-bashing, faded faster than many had hoped for.
All that is left is Iraq.
And Iraq is an excellent subject for a number of reasons.
First, most Americans get a very narrow view of the whole thing, largely in the form of television images of burned cars used by suicide-bombers. Since Iraq is not covered in any properly journalistic sense, partly because most reporters have left, with those still present keeping a low profile in the "Green Zone", one can imagine both the best and the worst about what is happening. And, since good news is no news it is always the worst that wins the headlines.
Also, Iraq can be used as the core of a cluster of issues including "Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction", the "yellow-cake scandal", the Richard Clarke confessions, the outing of the CIA agent Valerie Plame, the Abu-Ghraib pornographic photo sensation, and the most recent "secret prisons" rumors, among many others.
All of those things, of course, have nothing to do with what is happening in Iraq itself. But the word Iraq covers them all.
That the fuss has little or nothing to do with what is happening inside Iraq, is not hard to demonstrate.
Since March 2003 the US and its allies have achieved all their political objectives— starting with regime change, the dismantling of the Baathist military and security machine, the capture of most Baathist leaders, the writing and approval of a new constitution, a series of elections and, within the next few weeks, the formation of a newly elected government in Baghdad.
Normally, all that should be seen as a series of successes by any standards. Regime change in Germany and Japan in the 1940s took five years of war to achieve. And it took both nations four to five years after liberation before they could have new elected governments of their own.
Well, you might interject, what about the almost daily killings in Iraq?
Well, there is that — to be sure. But anyone familiar with terrorist insurgency would know that Iraq is doing no worse than other nations afflicted by that particular plague. Colombia has been fighting terrorism for more than four decades. Egypt needed almost 20 years to defeat its Islamist terrorists. The terrorist insurgency in Turkey lasted almost as long. In Algeria the terrorists fought for 12 years and caused the death of some quarter of a million people before going down in defeat. Right now at least 22 nations across the globe face some level of terrorist insurgency.
The question, of course, is whether or not the terrorist insurgency in Iraq is in the ascendance or in decline?
It is too early to tell. What is certain however, is that it has failed to disrupt, let alone stop, the political process, including a series of municipal and general elections, in any way. Nor has it been able to seize and control of any chunk of territory which most other terrorist insurgencies achieve. The Iraqi terrorist insurgency appears to have lots of money. But that is largely due not to donations by Iraqi sympathizers but to the half a billion dollars that Izzat Al-Duri, Saddam Hussein's number-two, managed to steal from the Central Bank in Baghdad a day before the regime collapsed. Some money is also coming from front companies set up by the Baathists, initially in Jordan but also in Austria and Cyprus, during the 1980s. A handful of wealthy Arab businessmen may also be making contributions, largely to the Islamist groups within the insurgency.
More importantly, perhaps, the terrorist insurgency has failed to develop anything resembling a political program. It kills lots of people but consistently fails to translate those murders into any form of political gain. Pushing the Americans out of Iraq has never been spelled out as the central goal of the terrorist insurgency. Abu Mussab Al-Zarqawi is more focused on killing Shiites and Kurds and envisaging a global jihad against all states, including Muslim ones, rather than forcing the Americans to leave Iraq.
In any case, one of the many paradoxes of this situation is that the US-led coalition may have become something of an insurance policy for the insurgents. As long as the US-led coalition is there, the Shiites and the Kurds would not be able to use their own considerable past experience in insurgency against Zarqawi and the remnants of the Baath party.
While all Iraqis want the US-led coalition to leave almost no one wants an early withdrawal. More than a dozen polls and anecdotal evidence gathered during visits to many parts of Iraq show that most Iraqis want the coalition to hang on for a bit longer. Had this not been the case there would have been nothing to prevent thousands, or millions, of Iraqis to march in Baghdad and Basra shouting "Yankee! Go Home!"
The cry we hear is " Yankee! Come Home!" emanating from Bush's opponents in Washington, Crawford, and San Francisco.
Many Iraqis want the coalition to stay for a while longer as a deterrent to predatory neighbors already positioning themselves for greater intervention in Iraq.
It is in the US and not in Iraq that the idea of a speedy withdrawal is gaining popularity. This is why the newly elected leadership in Baghdad must turn its attention to the real battlefield where the future of Iraq may be shaped — that is to say the United States.
Once the new parliament is formed they should send emissaries on barn-storming visits throughout the US both to thank the American people for their sacrifices and to inform them about what is really happening in Iraq.
Their message should be straightforward: We are grateful for your help and want you to stay until we feel that we no longer need you!