Iraq and Somalia - Bush is fuelling a new cold war
Say what you like about George Bush, but no one can accuse him of following the crowd. When everyone from the American electorate to the US military brass, along with a rare consensus of world opinion, cries out with one voice to say “enough” of the war in Iraq, Bush heads in the opposite direction — and decides to escalate. When his army chiefs complain of desperate overstretch, he takes that as his cue to open up another front. And that was just last week.
On January 7 the US military launched an air strike — not on Iraq or Afghanistan, but on southern Somalia. If you didn’t know that Somalia was on the enemies’ list — if you’re finding it hard, what with Syria and Iran and North Korea, to keep track of Washington’s foes, don’t blame yourself. These days the axis of evil is expanding faster than the European Union, with a couple of new members added every January.
Not that we should mock. At first blush, the Somalia raids look like just the kind of action that a global war on terror should entail, had it not been diverted by the unrelated nonsense about WMD and Iraq. After all, the Americans say they aimed their fire at Al Qaeda bigwigs, thought to be responsible for the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Zapping bad guys like them is exactly what the war on terror was supposed to be about.
But the January 7 operation carried serious risks. There is the propaganda coup — with the jihadist enemy represented by the US, once again, bombing a Muslim country. If the Americans have bungled, and civilians have been killed, then the recruiting impact for Al Qaeda and others will be even greater. And the precedents suggest such raids from the sky are horribly inaccurate. This time last year a US Predator drone thought it had Osama bin-Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in its sights when it hit a Pakistani compound near the Afghan border. The attack killed a reported 17 people, including six women and six children — but not Zawahiri. Africa hands I spoke to on January 9 were doubtful the Americans had done any better this time: their chief target, Al Qaeda’s top man in East Africa, is said to be a master of disguise and constantly on the move. It hardly helps appearances that Washington’s partner in this adventure is the government of mainly Christian Ethiopia. For this was not just a simple police operation, but part of a wider US intrusion into a messy, complicated conflict.
A fortnight ago the Ethiopians entered Somalia to topple the Islamist forces who had just taken Mogadishu. Americans dislike that Islamist movement, fearing it has the makings of the Taliban, so they backed the Ethiopians. According to Patrick Smith, the editor of Africa Confidential, the war on terror is becoming a cold war for the 21st century, with the US finding proxy allies to fight proxy enemies in faraway places.
Of course, Bush himself doesn’t see it that way. He doubtless hoped that a neat, self-contained air strike in Africa could remind Americans of the bit of the war on terror they like — hunting down the baddies — just before they hear some news they don’t. President Bush is preparing to send upwards of 20,000 more troops into the graveyard that is Iraq.
It’s a neat twist on democratic accountability. In last November’s midterm elections, Americans sent a message as clearly as they could: we want this war to end. Bush promised he had heard them — and is promptly doing the very opposite.
Only weeks have passed since the Iraq Study Group, led by his father’s consigliere, James Baker, recommended a face-saving extrication from Iraq. That plan is now binned. So too are the senior military leaders who counselled against sending more troops to fight a losing war. General George Casey will no longer be in charge, while General John Abizaid has been relieved of his post running Central Command, or Centcom. Both men opposed the “surge”, calling instead for a gradual US withdrawal.
So now we know what the much-vaunted new Bush strategy for Iraq amounts to: throw more gasoline on the fire. It’s conceivable that Bush is, in fact, planning an eventual withdrawal, but hoping that one last push will give him something he can call victory as a finale.
Tony Blair is still on the old script. There is something lame about the current convention which allows our politicians to criticise discrete aspects of this war — the 2003 disbandment of the Iraqi army, the reconstruction effort, the conduct and filming of Saddam’s death (though not the punishment itself) — while requiring them to stay silent on the crime of the invasion itself.
I know, I know, what else could Gordon Brown, UK’s presumptive prime minister, say, given that he voted for the war and sat next to Blair through it all rather than resigning in protest? But once he’s in No 10, he will have to make a clean break from this most terrible chapter in British and American foreign policy and set out a new, radical strategy for the war against jihadism. And it is the polar opposite of everything George Bush stands for. —The Guardian