Let’s start with what I assume we can all agree on: that the vast majority of Iraqis want to be left alone to live in peace, earn a living, and educate their children. It doesn’t matter if they are Sunni or Shia, secular or religious, urban or rural – certain basic human desires surely unite us all.
We can, I think, also agree that the vast majority of Iraqis have no more prospect now of fulfilling those basic desires than they did before the invasion of their country nearly four years ago.
But now it gets rather harder. Will 21,500 extra American troops in and around Baghdad make it more likely or less likely that peace will prevail in Iraq? Are Iraq’s political leaders genuinely committed, as they claim to be, to creating a non-sectarian, democratic future for their country? Or does the Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, secretly believe that the best way forward is to entrench a Shia hegemony after decades of domination by the Sunni minority?
Military commanders hate political ambiguity. Give them a clear mission and a defined goal and they’ll happily go for it. But Iraq is one big mess of political ambiguities. President Bush said in his TV address that the extra US troops do have a well-defined mission: “to help Iraqis clear and secure neighbourhoods, to help them protect the local population, and to help ensure that the Iraqi forces left behind are capable of providing the security that Baghdad needs."
But he is, in the words of former US defence secretary William Cohen, “pretty much alone on this.” The majority of American voters think he’s wrong, many of his top generals are reported to think he’s wrong, the opposition Democrats think he’s wrong – and even Mr Maliki is said to have grave doubts.
Mind you, going with the consensus doesn’t always mean making the right decisions. Remember Winston Churchill in the 1930s, a voice in the wilderness. (No, I’m not saying George Bush is Winston Churchill …) The New York Times describes the new strategy as “vintage George Bush — in the eyes of admirers, resolute and principled; in the eyes of critics, bull-headed, even delusional.”
Just before Mr Bush addressed the nation on Wednesday night, the White House released a list of eight “key assumptions” which it says used to underlie US policy in Iraq but which now no longer apply. Among them: that the main challenge to security is a Sunni insurgency. Now, it says, it thinks the main challenge is “violent extremists from multiple communities: the centre is eroding and sectarianism is spiking.”
And that, surely, is the heart of the problem. Will the US army now be able to encourage Mr Maliki to deal with Shia death squads as well as Sunni ones? (Always remembering, of course, that the Shia militia known as the Mahdi army is loyal to the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose MPs are a vital part of Mr Maliki’s parliamentary coalition.)
I kept a diary during the Iraq war, and I’ve just been re-reading it. After the fall of Saddam and amid the celebrations over the capture of Baghdad in April 2003, I wrote this: “I think Iraq is going to be a violent, messy, angry place for a long time … I’ll probably be talking about Iraq until I retire.” I fear that, for once, I was right.