Good lawyers usually don't take their cases to the Supreme Court unless they have a strong chance of winning. By the same token, good wartime presidents don't announce that the fighting has reached "a defining moment" unless there's a strong chance that it will resolve in their favor or they believe that by rhetorically raising the stakes, they'll spur their troops to victory.
Yet President George W. Bush did just that last week, after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sent troops—backed by U.S. air power and (we've since learned) Marines and special-ops forces—into the southern city of Basra in an effort to crush Muqtada Sadr's radical Shiite militia and, by extension, its political base.
As a result of this needless hype, the clash—which, on its own terms, ended in stalemate—took on the air of a defeat, and in many dimensions. To call the battle "a defining moment" was to declare that its outcome would define the state of the struggle. And that state does not look good in the aftermath.
Maliki wound up a loser because he launched the offensive, demanding that Sadr's militiamen surrender their weapons—then, a few days later, agreed to a cease-fire that kept the militia armed.
Bush lost because he backed the campaign with America's armed might and his own proclamation.
The Iraqi army lost because its commanders and troops revealed all too clearly that they're still unable to lead a successful battle.
The U.S. Army lost because its troops are now doomed to stay in Iraq for still longer than they might have been led to believe. (The five "surge" brigades will go home in July, as scheduled; but the case will now be made that the Iraqi army's poor showing in Basra means we can't prudently withdraw more of our own troops just yet.)
Sadr won because his Mahdi Army resisted the offensive—at the same time that his men continued to abide by his moratorium on attacking U.S. troops directly (in other words, he showed himself both militarily effective and politically in control).
And the Iranians won because Maliki turned to them to mediate the cease-fire with Sadr, thus confirming their status as a major player in Iraqi politics and a dominant power on Iraq's southern port. (The Iranians probably would have won no matter what happened, because the rival Shiite militia backing Maliki—the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, 10,000 members of which fought alongside the official army—also has ties to Iran. Maliki afterward admitted those 10,000 into the national armed forces. Does this mean that the ISCI militia has been co-opted into the Iraqi government—or that the government is, even more than before, controlled by the militia?)
This week, Bush traveled to Europe, a less confounding part of the world, for the annual conference of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, held this year in Bucharest. Yet here, too, he behaved like a bad lawyer—and did more harm than good to those whose cause he advocated, in this case the new (if somewhat shaky) democracies of Ukraine and Georgia.
Leading up to the NATO conference, Bush assured those leaders that he would push for their admission into the alliance. The problem was that he hadn't checked with the other members first. When most of those other members voted down the proposal, for a variety of reasons, the Ukrainians and Georgians felt insulted and humiliated—understandably so. Their hopes had been raised and then dashed—all in public.
NATO did release a statement noting that the two nations might be admitted someday. If Bush hadn't made his baseless promises ahead of time, the document might have been read as an assurance. But, under the circumstances, it seemed like a brushoff.
Again, Bush turned the status quo into defeat. Why? The New York Times quoted a "senior official" as saying that Bush wanted to "lay down a marker" for his legacy. First, Bush may be thinking about his legacy, but the other Western leaders will have to live and lead in Europe after he's out of power. Second, what kind of marker is it to tick off Ukrainians and Georgians for no good reason and to pile another layer of uncertainty and awkwardness onto the whole panoply of East-West relations?
As Casey Stengel once screamed, "Can't anybody here play this game?" That was when he was manager of the New York Mets in the team's first season. Bush has been in power now for seven years and two and a half months. It's unbelievable that he has nine and a half months—enough time for more "birth pangs"—to go.