If Bush isn’t completely crazy or cynical, perhaps he’s hoping for, or even planning, a coup in Iraq to produce a government that will be able to supply its troops and won’t support Shi’a ethnic cleansing of the Sunni Arabs of Iraq.

Just as “evil and crazy” was not an adequate model for predicting what Saddam Hussein would do next and isn’t an adequate model for predicting what Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will do next “evil, crazy, and ignorant” isn’t an adequate model of the behavior current ruling junta. I don’t deny that Bush and his cronies are evil, crazy, and ignorant in important ways, merely that the project of understanding what he’s up to can’t rest on reciting those slogans.

Below I offer three explanations for the President’s decision to increase troop strength in Iraq. I think they exhaust the possibilities, but of course there might be a fourth alternative I haven’t thought of:

1. George W. Bush really is so divided from reality that he thinks adding 22,000 troops to our force in Baghdad has a reasonable chance at turning off the civil war there.

2. George W. Bush is so cynical he’s just kicking the can down the road, forcing his (quite possibly Democratic) successor to throw in the towel so the Republicans can play “who lost Iraq” for the next twenty years. Update Or, suggests Rosa Brooks in the LA Times, get the Democrats to vote against escalation so Republicans can blame the defeat on them.

3. He has reason to think that some other vital element of the situation will change, possibly because he has plans to make it change.

To fit with #3, the possible change would have to be something the President couldn’t talk about now. What could that be?

Well, work backwards. What’s the single biggest possibly removable obstacle to stabilizing Iraq? I’d say it was the Iraqi government, which is:

a. Politically dependent on Moqtada al-Sadr, and therefore incapable of either purging the security forces of Mahdi Army death squads;

b. Perfectly happy to victimize Sunnis; and

c. Weak, corrupt, and incompetent, incapable of even delivering adequate logistical support to its own army, which in consequence is short of both bullets and blankets.

It’s clear that the al-Maliki government is unenthusiastic at best about the promises Bush had made on its behalf, especially the promise to take the gloves off when it comes to the Mahdi Army.

So perhaps the other change Bush is counting on is a change of government in Iraq, either by political maneuvering or by some sort of coup leading to rule by a strongman (Allawi?) willing to take on the Shi’i militias. That prospect was being openly floated in Baghdad last summer, the people floating it believed that a coup would have American support, and the Administration wasn’t especially vigorous in quashing those rumors.

If Bush thinks that a change of government is likely, or is holding in reserve the option of bringing one about if al-Maliki & Co. won’t play ball, that would at least make a tiny bit of sense of what otherwise seems an expensive gamble on a forlorn hope. Yes, a coup would make hash of the “democratization” idea, but there’s not much left to that idea anyway.

Update Actually, I can think of a fourth possibility. Perhaps Bush really is prepared to pull the plug, but wants to be seen to be doing so as a result of the Iraqi government’s failure to step up to the plate. Perhaps in his mind pulling out as a way of punishing al-Maliki would be less disgraceful than pulling out because we’ve undertaken a task that can’t be accomplished with the resources available. (Second-order update: Tom Maguire, who isn’t a Bush-hater, had the same thought. Of course, as Dan Drezner points out, this would be a disastrously stupid strategy, as well as (Maguire notes) horribly cynical, so perhaps it is indeed the one Bush has in mind.)

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com