The leaders of the United States and Iraq, George W Bush and Iyad Allawi, have declared strongly in recent days that Iraq is on the path to peace, reconstruction is making good progress and a democratic outcome is in sight. These statements are in remarkable contrast with those adopted by the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, who acknowledges that the insurgency is intensifying, and the defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, who talks of limiting the January 2005 elections to “safe” parts of Iraq.

The reality on the ground in Iraq supports Powell not Bush. The violence continues across Iraq to the extent that American military casualties have increased for the third month in a row. US air raids on insurgent strongholds such as Fallujah are now a near–daily occurrence. The predicament facing US troops is radically different from that expected at the onset of war in March 2003, and there is now a real prospect of a protracted conflict that would bear comparison with Vietnam.

In such circumstances it is worth standing back from the immediate problems in order to assess what options might seriously be available from the perspective of the Bush administration. In doing so, it makes sense to recall its expectations of the likely course of events in Iraq eighteen months ago; to assess the immediate courses of action available before and after the November presidential election; and to examine a worst–case response if short–term tactics fail to achieve the desired result.

Going wrong

The United States’s prognosis in early 2003 was of the rapid destruction of the Saddam Hussein regime, followed by the establishment of permanent US military bases, the withdrawal of other occupying forces, and the instalment of a client regime. This latter could be achieved by an appropriately orchestrated democracy – perhaps not quite as crude as “Florida 2000”,ut still one that achieved the required result.

This strategic calculation, fuelled by the US neo–conservative vision, was founded on a fourfold assessment of Iraq’s huge geopolitical significance for the United States. First, the full exploitation of Iraq’s undeveloped oil reserves, especially those under its western desert, would be a lucrative target for friendly multinational oil compnies. Second, a client regime operating closely with Washington would nurture a fully free–market economy in a country of considerable potential wealth, with US business interests once again set to benefit.

Third, indirect control of an Iraq blessed by substantial long–term oil reserves would enable the United States to exert long–term security influence across the Gulf region as a whole. Fourth, such a redrawing of the regional political map would greatly benefit Israel, and this would ensure the substantial support of evangelical Christian and pro–Israel communities across America’s southern states.

Many columns in this series have charted the collision between this neo–conservative dream and the realities of post–Saddam Iraq. There is now a widespread consensus that the insurgency has moved far beyond the capability of US forces to control it. In response, the US administration is engaged in an effort of damage limitation designed to modify its policies in ways that might, from a Republican perspective, still produce valuable outcomes in the region – even if these fall well short of its initial hopes.

But this adjustment cannot possibly extend to a fully–fledged exit strategy, the wholesale withdrawal of US forces and the surrender of political and economic influence. Iraq is far too important for that – indeed such a result would represent a worse policy defeat than Vietnam and could be fatal to the ambition of creating a “new American century“.

Thinking small

What, then, are the immediate and longer–term options for the Bush administration in seeking to retrieve the situation in Iraq? The policy until the election, as last week’s column in this series proposed, will be to proclaim progress in Iraq, avoid major military confrontations, yet persist with powerful air raids against centres of insurgency. The assaults on Fallujah and elsewhere may be covered on satellite TV and in the press across the middle east, but they cause barely a flicker of interest in the American media and are therefore a minimal hindrance in the re–election process.

If the election does guarantee a second term for George W Bush, there will then be a window of opportunity to take much stronger action, even at the cost of heavy civilian casualties. The key period will be the three months between the November election and the scheduled Iraqi elections by the end of January 2005.

During this period, the US could use heavy military force against major conurbations in insurgent hands, especially in the central region of Iraq and in key parts of Baghdad itself. This would involve ground forces as well as airpower and include the kind of intensified, widespread application of force that was employed briefly in Fallujah in April 2004. This would be accompanied by rapidly increased funding to train and equip more Iraqi army and paramilitary forces, with the aim of weakening the insurgency long enough to hold even incomplete elections.

In these circumstances, the Bush administration would again claim (as on 1 May 2003) “mission accomplished”, but with – this time – an elected Iraqi government now in power. It would characterise the many parts of Iraq that might be too insecure for elections as undeserving of the opportunity to vote since they had shown themselves, by their support for the insurgency, to be anti–democratic.

This overall prospectus for early 2005 might be called the United States’s “Plan A”. In it, the insurgency might still be evolving towards a civil war, and the American forces might be playing a less central role; but the US could still ensure the survival of the post–Allawi (or reborn Allawi) regime. This outcome would still allow the US to retain impressive influence in Iraq, even though far less than the neo–cons’ “Greater Middle East Initiative” envisaged.

Looking west

In the present circumstance of relentless violence this would represent an optimistic outcome. But Washington’s long–term thinking must go beyond this, and embrace the possibility that any escalation of the use of heavy military force in the coming months would still not contain a growing insurgency. This scenario entails a deeply unstable post–election Iraqi government, and constant attacks on the US forces supporting it – requiring, in turn, reinforcements that might even involve the reintroduction of the US draft.

If US planners judged this to be a more likely outcome, what then might be their “Plan B”? If a second Bush administration was faced with such an untenable situation in Iraq, its remaining option might be to implement a strategy guided by a sense of its essential requirement: ensuring access not just to Iraq’s current oilfields but to potentially lucrative areas of oil exploration in the country’s western desert.

It is here that geography is significant. Iraq currently has two major regions of oil production, each outside the “Sunni triangle” and relatively sparsely–populated: in the south–east (mainly in open country around Basra) and in the north (the Kirkuk–Mosul axis, bordering on areas of Kurdish settlement). A coherent strategy could establish a degree of security over these oilfields and ease problems of distribution by developing new supply routes – even if the more populous parts of Iraq were suffering from long–term insurgency and civil war.

But a third area of Iraq has a potential for oil production that may equal or even exceed the existing two regions. This is the western desert, and an area of very low population density. Its oil reserves could in principle be exploited with almost no involvement from the people of Iraq, although a client government could help its survival against internal challenge by accruing benefits from export revenues.

This “Plan B” scenario, unfolding during a second Bush term, would entail the effective disengagement of US military forces from the continuing insurgency/civil war, and a refocus on securing the rich oil fields for the US’s immediate and long–term benefit.

It is worth remembering here that at least four permanent US military bases are currently being established in Iraq. One is north of Baghdad, two others are close to the northern and southern oilfields, and a fourth is located towards the Syrian border – a gateway, if such were needed, to the western desert.

In this projection of developments, the United States military would be responsible for the security of Iraqi oil (current and future) but have minimal involvement in the main centres of population. It is a far less ambitious vision than the neo–conservatives once embraced, yet it would keep alive one of the essential strategic objectives behind the removal of the Saddam Hussein regime in the first place.

But would it work? This is harder to say. It would still involve a substantial US military presence in the heart of the Arab world, and be seen across the middle east as a less comprehensive but still vigorous attempt to maintain geopolitical control of a key part of the region. That reality alone would be a remarkable recruiting tool both for Iraqi insurgents and for the wider network of al–Qaida associates and franchises. On present evidence, it would not work, but rather ensure the continuation of bitter, long–lasting war.

But a second Bush administration will have no alternative to staying in Iraq and making the best of its predicament. A fully–fledged withdrawal from Iraq is simply not an option – the country and the wider region are just too important for the current Washington leadership. In the absence of wiser counsel, the Iraq disaster will persist, with all the human costs to ordinary people in Iraq and elsewhere. Without a change of policy, leadership, understanding or heart, it could continue even as Jeb Bush marches into the White House in 2008.