This call for help is about re-election, not Iraq

To outsiders, it might seem odd that the American Administration went to the United Nations last week to ask – so far unsuccessfully – for the Security Council to place its seal of approval on the US military operation in Iraq. In the run-up to the war, after all, the Bush White House treated the UN as a necessary evil, not a necessary ally.
Suggestions that America might need foreign assistance, even foreign troops, were brushed aside. The UN Security Council’s refusal to pass a second resolution authorising the invasion became a point of high controversy. Certain UN Security Council members became the butt of multiple jokes (“The French will only go in if we tell them we’ve found truffles in Iraq”). All of which would seem to make it embarrassing, at the very least, for President Bush to do an about-face now, and ask for help.
The request is stranger, given that it seems, objectively speaking, unnecessary. International embarrassment would be a small price to pay, of course, if the American military were really in deep trouble in Iraq. But despite the recent bombings, there is not actually evidence – so far – that “deep trouble” is the right description.
A number of things are not going well in Iraq. On the other hand, a number of things are going very well indeed. So far, the civil war that many predicted has not materialised. The majority of Iraqis are co-operating well with American and British troops. And if the United States really needed reinforcements, the American army could certainly produce them.
And yet over the past few weeks, a very distinct mood shift has taken place in the White House, and it probably doesn’t have much to do with Iraq at all. For while the rest of the world hears only the loud bomb blasts in Baghdad and Najaf, the Bush Administration is also listening to the quieter ticking of the political clock. The 2004 presidential elections are just over a year away, after all. Already, the Democratic candidates are gathering for regular debates. Suddenly, it is no longer taboo to criticise the commander-in-chief. Many of the Democrats now believe that the president is vulnerable, if not on his decision to wage war – most Americans still support that – then on its length, its cost and its casualties.
I suspect that the Administration is listening quite closely, for example, to Howard Dean, the Governor of the state of Vermont and the temporary front-runner. “We need more troops,” Dean told an enthusiastic audience at a debate last week. “They’re going to be foreign troops, as they should have been in the first place. Ours need to come home.” At the same debate, Dean’s words were echoed by those of one of his rivals, the North Carolina Senator John Edwards: “We have young men and women in a shooting gallery right now – and the primary reason is because this president had no plan.” Dick Gephardt, a former Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, was even blunter: “This president is a miserable failure. He’s a unilateralist. He thinks he knows all the answers.”
A few months ago, similar barbs would have made no impact on the White House whatsoever, since no one in the White House believed that either new troops or more money would be needed in Iraq at all. Earlier this year, the deputy secretary of defence, Paul Wolfowitz, described Iraq as “swimming on a sea of oil”. Before the war broke out, he was only one of many in Washington who were predicting that the war would not only be swift, but cheap as well: whatever the cost of keeping troops there for the brief time necessary, Iraqi oil revenues would soon make up for it.
Wolfowitz did not need to “sex up” his projections of the war’s costs to make them sound more reasonable. He genuinely believed that the war would end quickly, causing little pain to the American taxpayer. So did many others, including, apparently, the President. If Tony Blair relied excessively on the “weapons of mass destruction” argument to justify Britain’s participation in the invasion, the White House relied excessively on those who believed that “it will be over in three weeks and cost nothing”.
They were wrong. Just last week, the Administration informed members of Congress to expect, next year, a bill for $60 to $70 billion for the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan, a number many times higher than any given in the past.
True, America is a rich country, and if this were a year of budget surpluses, under-employment, and high growth, even those high figures might be acceptable. But it is not. The budget crises now afflicting most American states are not the sort of thing that make headlines in Europe (except, of course, when fiscal catastrophe persuades Arnold Schwarzenegger to run for Governor of California). But budget crises are on front pages every day here, alongside news that schools are cutting music classes, cities will not carry out street repairs, and that money is being spent, instead, on schools and roads in Iraq
From that point of view, last month’s blackout could hardly have been more badly timed. Magically, the power outage seemed to inspire every one of America’s many talk show hosts to ask, simultaneously, “Why are we fixing the electricity grid in Iraq instead of fixing the electricity grid in the United States?”
This can’t last: while George Bush’s various advisers may have many faults, lack of political acuity is not one of them. They know perfectly well that Americans are much less interested in diplomatic shenanigans than they are in their city’s understaffed police force.
They are fully aware that the public will quickly forget anything said at the UN, and long remember the name of the local boy who died in Iraq. And they know – since so many of them worked for the current President’s father – that a Democratic presidential candidate might well make mincemeat out of a national leader who gets bogged down in foreign wars, and neglects the home front.
So when President Bush asks the United Nations to help it secure more troops and more funding for Iraq, do not be misled: he is not yet admitting that it was a mistake to invade Iraq. Instead, he is admitting that he fears losing power in 2004.