A new poll, organised by the Wall Street Journal and NBC, says roughly 70 per cent of Americans want the Democratic-dominated Congress to put pressure on the White House to take American troops out of Iraq.
So what is President Bush's response?
On December 20, the American commander-in-chief said he was considering sending more, repeat more, troops to Iraq.
The truth is that the American constitution gives presidents enormous freedom in the field of foreign policy. The United States Congress can beg, scold, or cajole, but in the ultimate analysis it is always the man in the Oval Office that sets the agenda in foreign policy and military matters. How many people know that President Franklin D Roosevelt ordered his ships to fire on Axis submarines several months before the attack on Pearl Harbor?
Some people have pointed, hopefully, to the manner in which the US Congress used its Brahmaastra, its power to cut funding, to end the Vietnam War. This ignores history; the 'brave' legislators did so only after American soldiers had shipped out of Vietnam. (President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had negotiated the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973; it took almost six more months for the US House of Representatives and the Senate to do their duty.)
Few legislators, Republican or Democrat, shall run the risk of accusations of 'letting our soldiers down' with presidential polls two years away. President Bush has nothing left to lose. He cannot, under American law, seek a third term -- something that might have made him heed public opinion. In any case, public disaffection appears to be with the bloody stalemate in Iraq rather than with the actual decision to attack that country.
The president knows perfectly well that he is not going to be impeached. And so, at least in the short term, he is well-placed to increase the American presence in Iraq. In an ironic twist, the American president might even claim support from the findings of the Iraq Study Group.
We must remember that the brains trust did not actually debate the ethics of attacking Iraq, it was content to denounce the managerial incompetence of the Pentagon. There is a general consensus that Donald Rumsfeld goofed up by sending too few men to Iraq. Well, then, President Bush stands ready to remedy that error!
Come to think of it, did the Iraq Study Group actually call for bringing all American troops out of Iraq? It did not. Here is what the panel's co-chairman James Baker said on television: 'So our commitment --- when we say not open-ended, that doesn't mean it's not going to be substantial. And our report makes clear that we're going to have substantial, very robust, residual troop levels in Iraq for a long, long time.' Not exactly a ringing call for withdrawal, is it?
In case anyone missed it, the Iraq Study Group also said: 'The United States should assist Iraqi leaders to reorganize the national oil industry as a commercial enterprise.' In other words, the American military is going to remain in Iraq as long as Iraqi oil continues to be an important factor. (That is Recommendation 63 on Page 57 of the published text.)
Harry Reid is the new Senate Majority Leader. Whatever he may have said during the election campaign, Senator Reid is singing a different tune now that his party has a share in power. He has announced that he will 'go along' with a 'surge' (the code word for an expansion of troops in Iraq). He has also staked his position by announcing that Democrats will 'give the military anything they want.'
And what does the Pentagon want? The former US army vice chief of staff, General Jack Keane, has given everyone a clue. He has urged sending at least 30,000 more soldiers (plus their back-up forces of course), and said it is impossible even to think about getting out in the next two years.
William Gladstone, one of Victorian Britain's longest-serving prime ministers, once said, 'The expenses of a war are the moral check which it has pleased the Almighty to impose upon the ambition and the lust of conquest that are inherent in so many nations.'
What are the costs of the war in Iraq? It is a few months short of four years, and the United States has spent roughly U.S. $350 billion on Iraq. It spent approximately $663 billion in twelve years of fighting in Vietnam (in 2006 dollars that is, after calculating for inflation).
And where the United States suffered about 58,000 deaths in Vietnam, the tally in Iraq is still under 3,000. All of which means that President Bush can afford to stick it out in Iraq up to the end of his term, which means January 20, 2009.
Like the 'Pentagon Papers' of the Vietnam War era, the Iraq Study Group's findings too seem destined for little more than academic interest. It took President Bush fewer than twenty-four hours to flatly reject the panel's recommendations to put any pressure on Israel.
It took him a little longer, almost two weeks, to kick away the suggestions about Iraq proper.
But he said so loud and clear on 20 December: 'A lot of Americans understand the consequences of defeat. Retreat would embolden radicals. It would hurt the credibility of the United States.'
As long as oil continues to be a factor, as long as Iraqi Shias and Sunnis continue to butcher each other, as long as the expenses of war can be sustained by the American economy, there is no hope of an American withdrawal from Iraq.