Any doubts about which way President Bush is leaning on a new strategy in Iraq were demolished when he visited the Pentagon for a classified briefing a few weeks ago and told his generals this: "What I want to hear from you is how we’re going to win, not how we’re going to leave."
So much for the bipartisan Baker-Hamilton report with its strategy of managing a barely disguised gradual defeat. So much for the resurgent Democrats in Congress, most of whom favor withdrawing from Iraq sooner rather than later. So much for a mainstream media that has long since written off the American mission in Iraq as bungled folly, and report accordingly. And so much, too, for the defeatist cast of American public opinion that is weary of an inconclusive war that most now regard as a mistake from the beginning.
However adverse the odds, Bush is still looking for a way to win.
Scoffers will deride this as deluded. But they cannot deny that an American defeat in Iraq would have catastrophic consequences, for Iraq, for the broader Middle East and for vital American interests in that strategic region and around the world.
Think of a collapsed Iraqi army, sectarian slaughter on a scale dwarfing the present bloodshed and the dire risk of a larger regional war. Think of malevolent Iran and opportunistic Syria drawn into the vacuum left by an American retreat from Iraq. Think of al-Qaeda triumphant. Think of the cause of modernizing reform and democratization across the Arab Middle East set back a generation.
Those are the stakes.
No wonder that even the Baker-Hamilton report warns that America cannot simply walk away from the mess in Iraq.
If that is so, and it is, Bush would be derelict in not trying anew for a military/political strategy that might yet yield success. The alternatives, after all, are the failing status quo, one version or another of likely defeat on the installment plan or the rapid withdrawal that every credible analyst says would produce disaster.
What would a strategy for winning require?
Bush is already implementing the first requirement — new military and political leadership for the Iraq campaign. Donald Rumsfeld is gone at the Pentagon, replaced by Robert Gates. Gen. John Abizaid is leaving as regional commander at CENTCOM, to be replaced by Adm. William Fallon. Gen. George W. Casey Jr. is soon to be replaced as U.S. commander in Iraq by the brilliant, innovative Army Lt. Gen. Dave Petraeus, a widely respected two-tour Iraq veteran with fresh ideas.
The second requirement is more troops. The military and political centers of gravity in this war are now Baghdad and Al-Anbar province. Simply put, there are too few American troops in either Iraq’s capital city or the Sunni insurgent heartland of Al-Anbar to provide essential security for the population, defeat the insurgents and terrorists and dampen sectarian violence.
Bush will reportedly propose a "surge" in U.S. troop levels of about 15,000 to 20,000 troops in addition to the roughly 140,000 already in Iraq. That’s a bare minimum number; 30,000 or so additional troops are needed. Moreover, any surge in troop strength would need to be sustained for a year or more.
Requirement three is a better counterinsurgency strategy for U.S. forces. By far the most successful counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq to date was the enlightened pacification campaign waged in and around the city of Tal Afar, a Sunni insurgent hotbed in Al-Anbar province, by the U.S. Army’s 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in 2005-06. Tal Afar’s central lesson – that protecting and winning over the population is more important than killing insurgents – is now enshrined in the new Army and Marine counterinsurgency doctrine just issued. Tal Afar must become the Army and Marine model for all future counterinsurgency work in Iraq.
Requirement four is a drastically improved economic development effort, by the U.S. mission in Iraq and by the Iraqi government. Delivering basic services and providing employment for Iraqis is critically important to stabilizing the country and reducing the levels of violence.
Yes, it’s true that without the political and sectarian reconciliation that only the currently flailing Iraqi government can provide, all of these new measures might still fail. But unless the U.S. and Iraqi military can provide basic security, especially in violence-wracked Baghdad and Al-Anbar province, the insurgents, terrorists and sectarian death squads won’t be defeated or deterred. In that event, the prospects for essential political compromise, too, would be doomed.
Predictably, Bush will be condemned and vilified for saying all this and for believing that victory, however loosely defined, is still possible in Iraq. He’ll also be right.