Shades of Cambodia

What was that about Syria and Iran?

Since the administration had revealed in advance almost everything that the president said last night, the real news in George Bush's speech was his elliptical threat to expand the war to Iraq's neighbors. Nestled well into a speech whose particulars were already familiar, there was this understated bombshell:

Succeeding in Iraq also requires defending its territorial integrity -- and stabilizing the region in the face of the extremist challenge. This begins with addressing Iran and Syria. These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq. Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.

This could mean several things. It could mean that the United States will better monitor or deploy more forces along those borders. It could mean that U.S. forces will more aggressively interdict and attack anyone they suspect of conveying insurgents or material across those borders. It could mean that our forces will have orders to pursue those insurgents across those borders if the insurgents, once attacked, turn around and retreat. It could mean that U.S. forces have orders to attack suspected insurgents gathered on the Iranian and Syrian sides of Iraq's borders. It could mean that such encounters could be pretexts for U.S. air strikes on those insurgent forces even inside Iran or Syria, or on buildings or encampments nowhere near the border where the United States suspects insurgents or their leaders or their armaments are holed up. At some point, such U.S. actions would surely provoke military countermoves from Syria and Iran, which could lead to a more general U.S. air war against those two countries.

This clearly isn't what James Baker had in mind when his commission recommended renewed contact with Iran and Syria -- but that actually doesn't necessarily mean that Bush has (once again) totally trashed the recommendations of his father's generation of Republican foreign policy honchos. For what Bush may have intimated last night is that he plans a Kissingerian conclusion to his war. (Well, it's Nixonian, too, of course, but we know he talks with Kissinger, and we don't know that he channels Nixon. Then again, we don't know that he doesn't, either.)

The Nixon-Kissinger plan for Vietnam was always to go out with a bang. They extended the war to Cambodia, for the same reason that Bush threatened Iran and Syria tonight -- it was a sanctuary for the North Vietnamese. And even as they withdrew U.S. forces, they upped their bombing of the North, to convey to their fellow Americans that we weren't going quietly, and to the world that we were still crazy muthas that you wouldn't want to mess around with.

So: Suppose Bush knows that we have to pull out of Iraq or else he will drag down the Republicans in 2008 -- that, far from being the William McKinley of Karl Rove's dreams, inaugurating a new era of Republican rule, he could well be Herbert Hoover come again, dooming Republicans for the next historic epoch. What can he salvage? He can begin withdrawing by slapping Syria and Iran around and showing that we're still the only superpower on the block. Or he can justify -- well, he can attempt to justify -- our continued presence in Iraq as being a way to bring a more dangerous nation, Iran, down a notch.

Nixon, of course, got more mileage out of Cambodia than that. He made the Democrats more angrily antiwar than they had been, widening a rift in the nation that he exploited brilliantly to his advantage. It wasn't his re-election campaign's dirty tricks to derail frontrunner Ed Muskie that made George McGovern the Democratic nominee; it was his broadening of the war. Maybe, just maybe, Rove has convinced Bush that if he widens the war, he'll really drive the Democrats around the bend, and bring demonstrators out to the streets, and that, somehow, he will gain from this polarization as Nixon did from his.

I'm inclined to doubt that, because it's likelier than not that a clear majority of the American people would be appalled at this point at the widening of the war, that the polarization the administration would provoke would only turn more people against Bush and his war, and send not just dangerous lefties but milquetoast moderates screaming into the streets. But Bush, Cheney, and Rove have seen their dreams turn to nightmares, and these guys didn't exactly exhibit sound judgment when things were going well. Massive miscalculation, if anything, is their stock in trade.

But, for all we know, Bush is beyond calculation at this point. Nixon and Kissinger, at least, recognized the need to wind down the war. Bush certainly laid the groundwork in his speech for getting out if Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki fails to deliver -- and does anyone really believe Maliki will deliver? But suppose Bush is simply looking for a way to stay the course, to keep forces in Iraq until he leaves the White House. Given the political exigencies in this country, if Bush wants to stay in Iraq for time immemorial, he had to say what he said tonight, and hope it gains him more time. Just as expanding the war to Iran does, in a warped way, renew the mission of our forces there.

Who can fathom the thought processes of this president, as psychologically warped as Nixon but possessing none of Nixon's smarts? The New York Times reported last night that during his pre-speech meeting with congressional leaders today, Bush was asked why he thought this strategy would succeed where previous such efforts had failed. "Because it has to," Bush replied. Reassuring words from the leader of the free world.

Harold Meyerson is the Prospect's acting executive editor.

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