Repeating History in Iraq

President Bush has unveiled a bold new plan for the war in Iraq, which involves clearing and holding urban areas to provide security, offering new economic opportunities to drain support from the insurgency and taking steps to give all Iraqis a stake in a democratic order. No, I’m not talking about his televised speech last night. I’m referring to his "national strategy for victory in Iraq" — which was unveiled in November 2005.

The "new" element this time is pouring more troops into Baghdad to make the city safer. But we’ve been there and tried that, including one major attempt just a few months ago in "Operation Together Forward." The result, admitted National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, was that "sectarian violence continued to mount, so we did not make the progress on security we had hoped. We did not bring the moderate Sunnis off the fence, as we had hoped. The Shia lost patience, and began to see the militias as their protectors."

Now, it’s one thing to sell oats before the horse has eaten them, and another thing to sell them after. Bush’s proposals were not terribly convincing the first time, and developments in the interim have not magnified their allure. Yet he expects his address to generate support for expanding the war to solve problems that, had his previous strategy worked, would not exist.

Either you have to believe this latest program is truly different, or you have to assume he has learned better ways to implement it. But the basic formula is identical to those of the past, for the obvious reason that Bush has little capacity to learn from his mistakes. Trusting him to devise a successful formula for Iraq is like asking Jeff Skilling to come back and revive Enron.

Exhibit A in the administration’s case for a surge of troops into Baghdad is the experience in the city of Tal Afar, which the president has long held up as a model. But critics say the success was partial at best, with Shiite areas secure and Sunni ones armed and dangerous. And — brace for a real shocker — things went south as soon as U.S. troops moved on.

On top of that, Tal Afar was a small city, and the heavy concentration of forces we managed there would be impossible to duplicate in Baghdad, which is vastly larger. Not to mention that we can’t build a 9-foot concrete wall around Baghdad, as we did in Tal Afar.

James Dobbins, a former Bush envoy to Afghanistan now with the RAND Corp., says that based on previous nation-building efforts, we would need some 500,000 troops to stabilize Iraq. Even with the boost in troop strength, we would have only one-third that number.

Dobbins points out another defect: If we concentrate our efforts in Baghdad, the insurgents can do the same, raising the level of violence instead of curbing it. That is what happened last summer, when we deployed more troops there in an attempt to improve security, only to see a jump in insurgent attacks and American casualties. Another possibility is that our enemies will take the opportunity to wreak havoc elsewhere, knowing we’re too focused on the capital to respond.

Having more troops might have helped in the months following the invasion. At this stage, though, an increase would probably just deepen resentment among the locals. Our presence offers one of the rare points of agreement between Iraq’s sectarian enemies. A recent poll found that 92 percent of Sunnis and 62 percent of Shiites approve of attacks on U.S. forces, and both groups overwhelmingly favor our withdrawal within six months.

A surge would only confirm Iraqi suspicions that we plan a permanent occupation, a prospect that generates a steady supply of new recruits to the insurgency. Bush’s idea is to divert them with a U.S.-financed job program. But we’ve tried that already, with no visible success. Frederick Barton, a former official of the U.S. Agency for International Development, explained why to the Los Angeles Times: "Cleaning up garbage and digging ditches for a few bucks a day for six weeks doesn’t give you much of a time horizon and might put your life at risk."

But the administration keeps trying the same things it’s tried before, because it can’t admit that Iraq was an irredeemable error. As one official confided to the Times: "We’re reliving all of the issues that have been discussed since 2003. It’s like ‘Groundhog Day.’ " Except the movie had a happy ending.