In this issue:
Media reaction to Bush's speech will be intriguing and important. Usually, networks and newspapers provide two opinions on a subject, Democratic and Republican, and make no value judgment between them. But in this case, finding Republicans who wholeheartedly back Bush's plan could be difficult—which may make the tone of coverage highly negative. If that happens, the administration may have great difficulty convincing the American people of its case in the days to come, and public support for an increase in troops could remain very low. If that happens, the administration will face a vicious cycle in which Republicans feel even more emboldened to desert the White House. It is noteworthy that the speech appears to offer Bush clear outs—ways to justify a decision to cancel the surge. Contrary to earlier press reports, America will now only surge if Nuri Maliki's government makes a deal to share oil wealth and reintegrate former Baathists, things it has shown no willingness to do. Whether the Bush administration really makes the surge contingent on such moves will depend not only on what happens in Iraq in the months to come, but what happens in Washington in the coming hours and days.
Under previous U.S. strategy, the odds for success in Iraq were very poor. Does the new strategy improve them? The answer is: some, but not very much. There is some good in the new strategy. Changing the mission of U.S. troops to emphasize population security for Iraqi civilians, for example, is a step in the right direction. So is the replacement of the old, open-ended U.S. commitment with a new willingness to make our presence conditional on Iraqi political progress toward reconciliation. But there are also some important shortcomings. In particular, the new troop commitments still leave us well short of the usual rules of thumb for the number of troops needed to pacify a city the size of Baghdad, much less the rest of central Iraq. And if our presence is insufficient to provide real security, then the political leverage we get from a threat to leave or a promise to stay is correspondingly limited.
So the new strategy is a long-shot gamble. The odds are a little less long than before, but only a little. Are the odds too long? There is no objective analytical answer. The issue turns on one's personal tolerance for risk and cost, and reasonable people will judge the same odds differently. After all, failure in Iraq would do grave damage to U.S. interests—it may be worth a long shot gamble to get even a small chance at averting disaster. But the chance offered us here is not very great, and the cost of the gamble in American lives is heavy. It is not unreasonable to judge that the odds are now too long, and the cost too high.
Will the troop surge work? Beats me. But does anyone have a better idea? Pulling out now could turn Iraq into a Rwanda-style genocidal civil war. My sense is that most Americans recognize this and still want to salvage an acceptable outcome if possible. Given that our current strategy clearly is not working, there are only two realistic alternatives: decrease or increase the size of U.S. forces. The former strategy runs a great risk that the Iraqi Security Forces, even if provided with more U.S. trainers, will disintegrate in the face of greater sectarian violence. The latter strategy is far from foolproof but offers probably the greatest chance of improving conditions on the ground.
However, there is a big question that remains about President Bush's increased deployment: Will 21,500 extra troops make a big difference? Based on classic counterinsurgency calculations (1 soldier or policeman per 40 or 50 civilians), pacifying Baghdad, a city of 6 million people, requires a force of some 150,000. The beefed-up U.S. force in Baghdad still will be less than 40,000 strong. Even if the Iraqis provide some reliable forces to work with them, this would be sufficient to control only a portion of the city—Sunni and mixed Sunni-Shia neighborhoods. Sadr City, where some 2 million Shia live, would probably remain in the grip of the Mahdi Army. This is far from ideal, but if a mixed Iraqi-U.S. force could have success in stabilizing even a good chunk of Baghdad this would represent major progress. At best the troop surge will buy time for much-needed reforms, assuming that the Iraqis are willing to make them. At worst it will have no impact at all. But I think it is worth one last shot before we throw up our hands in despair and concede defeat.
In announcing a plan to send an additional 20,000+ troops to Iraq over the course of the next few months, the Bush administration seems to want to correct past mistakes, but does not have the resources to do so effectively. More interesting than the so-called "surge" is the administration's emphasis on devoting additional resources to reconstruction and job creation for Iraqis. In the abstract, these initiatives are positive, but they are based on the premise that economic development can ameliorate the logic of sectarian and insurgent violence in Iraq. This is a dubious assumption as it gives short shrift to the primary political issues that contribute to uncertainty and instability in Iraq. The Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds have widely divergent views about who should control Iraq, how the country's resources should be distributed, and how the basic governing institutions will function. Unfortunately, given circumstances on the ground there is very little the United States can do militarily or politically to alter this state of affairs. It is difficult to admit, but Iraq may very well be lost.
The speech was direct, strong and detailed. But the policy announced tonight matters far more than the words—and that policy represents a major shift. For the first time since the fall of Baghdad, the president has set out a realistic plan to secure the citizens of that city in order to allow political and economic progress to move forward. Much will depend on the performance of the Iraqis themselves, but America at least has defined a necessary, measurable goal, and promised the resources and troops to meet it. In the process, the president has shown that he is unimpressed by the conventional foreign policy wisdom. Instead of going to Iran as a supplicant, he is sending a carrier strike group to the region. Instead of abandoning a struggling democracy, he asserts that democracy is worth fighting for, and that our long-term security depends on democratic progress. Instead of seeking cover for retreat, he points out that retreat may also have unintended consequences, including genocidal levels of violence in Iraq. This new approach is likely to put his critics on the defensive, at least for a time. The commander-in-chief has proposed a new course, and skilled military leaders believe it will work. Given the stakes, it is hard to argue that America should not even try.
The Bush plan to send more troops to combat insurgents and militia in Iraq faces huge obstacles to success. Iraq's Maliki government has to date proven incapable and unwilling to allow political and economic developments necessary to stabilization. And it has failed to stem Sunni insurgents and has refused to suppress Shia death squads. Meanwhile, the insurgency has gained new recruits among despairing Iraqis and increased the effectiveness of its tactics. In the U.S. Congress, critics are scrambling to set limits on the amount of resources and the time allowed for them to work. Opinion polls show a large majority of Americans doubt the tide can be turned or that U.S. security requires it. Counterinsurgency experts find wholly inadequate to the security challenge the number of additional troops and the short time envisioned for their activation. Unless conditions in Iraq noticeably improve, Bush will lose his remaining leverage and will finish out his presidential term isolated and marginalized. As the 2008 elections draw near, division will grow sharper within Republican ranks between supporters and doubters of escalation. And Democratic presidential candidates will feel heat from the party's base to embrace a quick disengagement. The most realistic outlook is for civil strife between Shias and Sunnis to rage on for a number of years until there is a clear winner, a compromise borne of exhaustion or a break up of the country. The challenge for the United States will be to keep the entire, oil-rich region from descending into chaos. No more important crisis faces the United States in the year ahead.
I found the president's speech incomplete and disappointing. On the diplomatic side he once again antagonized Iran and Syria, and left no room for any cooperation. Politically, his "benchmarks" for Iraqi progress and goals for democracy were weak and unrealistic. He failed to articulate the consequences of Iraqi failure to meet the benchmarks. Militarily, he promised priority on Baghdad and Anbar and increased activity in countering Syrian and Iranian interference, but not how the latter would be accomplished—empty threats or more conflict? The use of sectarian-based Iraqi forces to bring security to Baghdad is problematic—some army and police units are the problem, not the solution. The ability to double our reconstruction teams in a reasonable time is suspect. Finally, he returned to his long-used scare tactics about what the consequences of failure in Iraq would mean—vastly overstated.
This is not a strategy that can turn Iraq around, but runs the danger of worsening things. There are not enough troops to impose an iron will on Iraq, but an increase in troops suggests that the United States is looking to expand the scope of its security commitment, especially by going after Shia militias which could provoke a broader Shia insurgency in Iraq. The president's strategy also lacks a political roadmap for reconciliation. There is violence in Iraq because there is no political agreement among Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds. The new strategy presents no roadmap out of this. It puts benchmarks before a failed national unity objective without specifying why a plan that has failed for a year will now work—after a period of escalation of tensions. There is no detail as to how Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds will be brought to the table, what is the framework of negotiations, and how can Shias and Kurds be assured that concessions they make will be met by a reduction in the insurgency (a year of U.S. concessions to Sunnis made no dent in the insurgency). In fact, it sounds as if the administration understands that reconciliation is not possible so why bother dwelling on details. At best this new strategy will keep Iraq on its current course; and at worse it will exacerbate the situation, something that would require more surges.
The changes the president has suggested to the Bush administration's policy in Iraq are generally sensible, and the logic behind them is sound. But given how badly the situation there has deteriorated over the last three and a half years, the new approach is unfortunately much too little, much too late. Stuff has happened, as Donald Rumsfeld might say, and there is no good reason to believe that Iraq's descent into further chaos and open civil war can be reversed. The president is correct to point out that failure will be a disaster for Iraq, the Middle East more generally, and the United States itself. One can only wish that his administration had taken this concept to heart from the beginning and planned and acted accordingly. Unfortunately, the real tasks at hand now are managing the failure so as limit its fallout and transitioning to a post-Iraq American foreign policy.
The president's plan is intended to buy political space for national reconciliation in Iraq. The hope is that an influx of additional American and Iraqi (mainly Kurdish) forces into targeted areas of Baghdad will suppress Sunni terrorism and Shia death squads long enough to allow the emergence of a centrist Iraqi government that represents the majority elements of the Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish communities, while isolating extremists from each group. Unfortunately, prospects for the plan's success are not great. The additional forces may not be enough to make a sustained dent in the daily insurgent and sectarian death toll, especially because groups opposing the U.S. may believe they are on the verge of victory. Even if violence is temporarily reduced, the mutual tensions and divergent interests of the main political players in Iraq may be too great to overcome on such central issues as the sharing of power and oil revenues. If the president's plan fails to show results, demands for a 'phased redeployment' of U.S. forces—in effect a retreat—will become much stronger and perhaps irresistible. Unfortunately, an American withdrawal from Iraq under current conditions is likely to leave Iraq itself and the region as a whole in even greater peril.
The administration must be seen to be taking the initiative in Iraq, yet there are no plausible paths to recovery. The temporary deployment of additional troops is one way out of this bind. By framing the effort as "a supporting role," the president puts the onus on the Iraqi government to staunch the violence and work harder to lure Sunnis into a unity government. So the new approach serves two purposes: it responds to Americans who want to see a change of course, while creating the impression that if it does not work, it will be because the Iraqis have failed us. The reality therefore is that the troop increase is necessarily cosmetic. At this point, the United States does not have enough deployable troops to "clear, hold, build," even as the president's reluctance to acknowledge the growing chaos in Iraq has undermined public confidence in his judgment. The resulting lack of both military capacity and popular support suggest that the "surge" will probably turn out to be just a stage on the way to a withdrawal by the party taking office in January 2009.
The president certainly believes that terrorism will get worse if the United States withdraws. He has said: "If we fail in Iraq, it's going to embolden al Qaeda types. It will weaken the resolve of moderate nations to stand up to the Islamic fascists. It will cause people to lose their nerve and not stay strong." This suggests that the president is unaware that the jihadists already think they have won because America confirmed their narrative so comprehensively by invading Iraq to begin with and because they can plausibly—if not entirely accurately—claim to have thwarted Washington's imperial designs. Both factors undoubtedly contribute to recruitment. It also suggests that the president is unaware of the degree to which the chaos in Iraq has strengthened the very authoritarian regimes in the region the United States had hoped would embrace a modicum of political reform. It is true, nonetheless, that al-Qaeda has gotten a toehold in western Iraq, which it will expand and use as a base of operations if left unhindered. This will be a security challenge for the United States in the years ahead. Jordanians have already paid a heavy price in blood. Whether the best way to counter this development is a long term presence in Iraq—"fighting them over there so that we don't have to fight them over here…"—is open to serious doubt. Since the surge strategy allocates only a small part of the additional troops to Anbar province, the new administration strategy is not likely to resolve this uncertainty.