Both Bush and Maliki have put all their chips on the attack on Basra:
Bush called the operation “a defining moment in the history of a free Iraq,” saying the government is fighting criminals there. “It was just a matter of time before the government was going to have to deal with it,” he said.
The president also hailed the operation as a sign of progress, emphasizing that the decision to mount the offensive was al-Maliki’s.
“It was his military planning; it was his causing the troops to go from point A to point B,” Bush said. “And it’s exactly what a lot of folks here in America were wondering whether or not Iraq would even be able to do it in the first place. And it’s happening.”
It’s tempting to say that Cheney ordered the attack when he was in Iraq a week or so ago, but that’s not certain. Some speculate that it was Maliki’s initiative and was intended partly in order to put the Bush administration on the spot.
If the attack had been immediately successful, that would have proved that the Iraqis are indeed independent now, and capable of standing on their own two feet. It wasn’t successful, however, and is requiring increasing amounts of American and British support. Bush’s statement that it was Maliki’s initiative would also make it possible to disavow the attack and blame Maliki, but that would destroy the Bush team’s overriding message — that the Iraqis are ready.
So does Bush try to walk back his claim that this was a defining moment? Or does he stick with it, and redefine the defining moment? Bush never walks anything back, so we must expect the latter. (I am assuming that Maliki’s military situation will not suddenly improve — that remains possible, though it doesn’t seem likely.)
So how will he redefine it? First, he can demonize Sadr and the Mehdi Army and use them as an excuse to devastate Basra — a scorched-earth policy. Second, he can use the new violence as proof that we need to attack Iran. Both Bush’s friends and his enemies are speculating about the latter (though the two courses are not mutually exclusive at all).
At times like this it would be nice if the U.S. had a two-party system. It would be even nicer if the Bush policy had collapsed during a hotly-contested Presidential campaign, because in that case the candidates of the opposing party could loudly point out that the “defining moment”, like the rest of Bush’s Iraq policy, has been a disaster. But if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.