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Season of Change for Iraq Policy

Prepared by: Robert McMahon, Editor
Updated: December 26, 2006

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Change is in the air on Iraq policy, just as violence there is reaching its highest level, according to a Pentagon report. Robert M. Gates spent most of his first week as defense secretary visiting with U.S. troops in Iraq (AP) as well as Iraqi leaders.

He delivered his recommendations (LAT) to Bush over the weekend on troop levels and other tactics, but the White House did not provide details of the discussion. Bush says he is considering an expansion of the U.S. Army and Marines but will not send more troops into Iraq without a "specific mission." The Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes says Bush has reacted positively to a plan spelled out by Retired Gen. Jack Keane and military expert Frederick W. Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute. The plan requires a substantial increase in ground forces and calls for changing the U.S. focus from training Iraqi soldiers to “securing the Iraqi population and containing the rising violence.” At the same time, the Joint Chiefs of Staff are said to be against a force “surge” (WashPost).

As changes to U.S. troop deployments were discussed, there was new scrutiny on their rules of engagement, with eight Marines, including four officers, charged in connection with the deaths (LAT) of twenty-four Iraqi civilians last year in Haditha. CFR’s Lionel Beehner looked at the legal aspects of the Haditha case in this Backgrounder.

Meanwhile, it is less than two years since President Bush’s second inaugural address promised an American foreign policy dedicated to spreading democracy. As little as three months ago, he addressed from a UN podium “moderate reformers across the broader Middle East” with a hopeful message on democracy. Yet the Bush administration’s freedom agenda appeared to suffer a grievous blow in the past month amid damage control on Iraq, hastened by a resounding defeat of Republicans in midterm elections, and a bipartisan Iraq Study Group’s grim assessment of U.S. progress in Iraq.

The ISG declined to mention the goal of establishing democracy and emphasized regional diplomacy, including a revived Israeli-Palestinian peace process, as a way of bringing stability to Iraq. Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland, fresh from a conference of Persian Gulf leaders in Bahrain, said it was time for a broad policy adjustment following “a bungled U.S. occupation of Iraq conducted in the name of entrenching democracy in the region.” And with Lebanon’s fragile pro-democratic government teetering, Iran’s regional power ascendant, and the Palestinian crisis deepening, some analysts are saying the region is desperate for a strong U.S. hand not burdened by Iraq. Says Newsweek foreign editor Fareed Zakaria: “George W. Bush needs to understand that he now has to choose between Iraq and his broader Middle East project.”

But in the midst of all the advice on Mideast policy, outlined in this new Backgrounder, coming from inside and outside his administration, Bush has indicated he plans no abrupt shift. The goal remains a stable, “self-sustaining” democracy in Iraq, Bush says. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has quashed, for now, the idea of engaging Syria and Iran. Getting their help, she told the Washington Post, would involve too high a price for trying to secure Iraq.

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