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Salvaging the Mission in Iraq

Prepared by: CFR.org Staff
Updated: January 11, 2007

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President Bush has confirmed plans to send an additional 21,500 troops to help pacify Iraq’s most violent areas. Most of the new forces will be deployed to Baghdad alongside Iraqi troops to clear out sectarian fighters. In a nationally televised address, Bush took responsibility for previous failures in strategy but said U.S. troops would now be free from Iraqi government constraints to pursue Shiite militias and would have the force levels to secure the capital’s neighborhoods. He stressed that America’s commitment to Iraq is not open-ended and he would hold Iraqi leaders to their commitments involving security, reconstruction, and reconciliation. Bush acknowledged concerns in Congress about Iraq but warned that a U.S. drawdown now would lead to “mass killings on an unimaginable scale” and ultimately to “chaos in the region.”

Bush’s plan drew immediate attacks Thursday in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where Democrats and a number of Republicans challenged Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on the wisdom of a surge (Bloomberg). CFR President Richard N. Haass told CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman the Bush shift in tactics is a “re-Americanization” of the war. He also faulted the White House for rejecting a diplomatic push to include Iran and Syria. CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Vali R. Nasr shared the gloomy assessment of the plan, raising concern that the United States looks to be “going after Shia militias, which could provoke a broader Shia insurgency in Iraq.” Nasr and other CFR experts offer their reactions in this Media Guide.

Ahead of Bush’s address, the surge idea set off a spirited debate in the halls of Congress, not least because of U.S. public opinion turning against deploying (Gallup) more forces. Even members of the U.S. military increasingly disapprove of the idea (Military Times). There are new Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, yet the power to wage and escalate war still rests in the White House. Still, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), echoing Democratic leaders in both chambers, pointed out Congress’ “power of the purse” (Reuters), suggesting Democrats may withhold funds for future troop increases. In general, Democratic leaders have vowed greater oversight of defense appropriations, such as the administration’s plan to ask Congress for another $100 billion in emergency “supplemental” funds to finance the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This Backgrounder outlines the defense budgetary process.

While Democrats are nearly unanimously opposed to Bush’s plan, the once-united Republicans stand divided (LAT). Many Republicans say the risks of withdrawal are too great for Iraq and region, but a number of dissenters expressed their reservations about the troop surge. “"I want real evidence that a potential surge in troops will do more good than harm,” said Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-OH). The Democrats, led by New House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) wrote a letter to the president calling for a “phased redeployment” and drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq. Some Democrats advocate a political solution to end the hostilities in Iraq and greater efforts to bring about national reconciliation, but Republicans like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) say given the levels of violence, a political solution is unachievable. In a Washington Times op-ed, Terry Michael criticizes the Democratic stance as a “transparent antiwar vamp,” rather than a response to a “moral question to which voters loudly demanded a moral answer two months ago.”

Some lawmakers say the president’s surge plan may be too little, too late. “I don’t know any military expert who says that a modest increase in troop levels is going to make a big difference,” Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) told Jeffrey Goldberg in the New Yorker. “[Y]ou’re going to need one hundred thousand more, one hundred and fifty thousand more, orders of magnitude that we don’t possess.” (The Economist calls twenty thousand additional troops more of a “squirt” than a “surge.”)

Indeed, surges of U.S. forces in Iraq have occurred in the past but with little results at reducing violence. Previous escalations of troop levels have coincided with elections—for example, December 2005, ahead of parliamentary polls, posted the highest numbers (McClatchy) of U.S. forces deployed at 160,000. They have also coincided with spasms of violence; last July, for instance, seven thousand additional U.S. troops surged into Baghdad to secure the capital but resulted in higher levels of violence (Iraq Body Count).

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