Bush Bungles in Basra and Bucharest
The president's latest gaffes.
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?)
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of George Bush by Daniel Milhailescu/AFP/Getty Images.