//Bush's Pandora's box

Bush's Pandora's box

By Mark Tran / Iraq 04:25pm

A Jordanian who had lived in Iraq once told me: "The Americans have made a big mistake. By getting rid of Saddam, they have got rid of the shepherd who kept all the sheep together. Now he is gone, all the sheep are out and it will be not be possible to get them back together."

Saddam was more a butcher than a shepherd, but as Iraq slips deeper into sectarian strife, if not outright civil war, his point was pretty clear. In invading Iraq, George Bush has really opened a Pandora’s box.

Two US polls released yesterday made for grim reading for the president. The first, from CBS news showed only 34% of Americans thought he was doing a good job.

The worst approval ratings of his presidency, the figures were comparable to those of Richard Nixon at a similar point in his second term.

But the more interesting poll was conducted by Zogby International. The survey of US troops in Iraq – the first of its kind – showed that 72% thought the US should pull out this year, with 29% in favour of a pullout immediately. Only 23% thought the US should stay "as long as they are needed". Some 944 soldiers took part in the survey.

These findings must be pretty hard to stomach for the White House. There have been so many polls showing the unpopularity of the war among Americans at home, that they have become a political fact of life for the administration.

But when an overwhelming number of soldiers favour withdrawal, such findings are harder to brush aside.

Now as Nicolas Kristoff otes in the New York Times, by a 2-1 ratio, the troops believe that the US needs "to double the level of ground troops and bombing missions" to control the insurgency. But as this is a non-starter, the troops appear to think that the war is unwinnable so better to get out now.

Bush, currently visiting Afghanistan as part of a trip to south Asia, has refused to countenance anything that smacks of "cut-and-run". In remarks before his trip, the president played down fears that Iraq is slipping towards civil war, saying Iraqis faced a choice between "chaos or unity".

But as the violence in Iraq reaches new levels, Bush is looking a lonelier figure by the day. Even the Conservative party in Britain today voiced misgivings about America’s grandiose project to bring democracy to Iraq.

The former shadow foreign secretary Michael Ancram said: "If full-blown civil war breaks out we should just bring our forces home."

In the US itself, conservative commentators and pundits have been lining up to twist the knife into the administration. Luminaries such as Francis Fukuyama, William Buckley and William Kristol have all turned against the administration for going into Iraq.

For blogger Glen Greenwald,  the spectacle is unedifying to say the least. He writes: "For Bill Kristol to go on national television and blame the Bush Administration and our country’s military for the failure of his war is an act that is as despicable as it is revealing of the true magnitude of the desperation of the war proponents."

But at least Kristol et al have finally caught a dose of reality as Iraq turns into a calamity of epic proportions, whereas the president still seems to be in denial.

So what is the answer?

Kristof, who thought the war was a mistake to start with, argues that an immediate pullout would also be a mistake. He favours a timetable for withdrawal as such a move would force Iraqis to prepare themselves to run the country. This does seem to be the least bad option.