The Last, Best Hope for Iraq

A chastened, somber President Bush has outlined what he surely knows is America’s last, best chance to retrieve success from its Iraq campaign. Whatever the doubts about its chances, all of us most hope that Bush’s new strategy can work. If it fails, Iraq could disintegrate and the Middle East cauldron would become far more dangerous.

The critics’ brickbats aside, the plan itself is a sensible, if long overdue, response to the deteriorating situation in Iraq.

Clearly, more American troops are urgently needed to subdue terrorism and sectarian strife in chaotic Baghdad and defeat the insurgents in al-Anbar province, heartland of the Sunni rebellion. Redefining the mission and tactics of U.S. forces on these two decisive fronts is every bit as important as the 21,500 additional American combat troops being sent to Iraq. Setting benchmarks for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government on Shiite-Sunni political reconciliation and a dramatically stronger security effort is an indispensable component of any hopes for stabilizing Iraq. So, too, is a redoubled effort to employ Iraq’s legions of jobless young men on public works projects rebuilding battered infrastructure.

As the above list testifies, the Bush administration’s new strategy is hardly a merely military response to Iraq’s complex matrix of political, economic and security problems. Nor is it merely "more of the same," a repetition of American efforts that are currently failing.

In Baghdad especially, the new strategy explicitly repudiates the minimalist, "small-footprint" doctrine pursued by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, his Middle East theater commander Gen. John Abizaid and the departing commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. George Casey. Keeping the U.S. military presence in Baghdad to a minimum and relying on Iraqi soldiers and police to secure Iraq’s capital obviously failed. Terrorist bombings and sectarian killings increased sharply last year.

Too few troops, both American and Iraqi, and largely passive tactics doomed the U.S.-Iraqi Operation Forward Together, which was intended to secure Baghdad in 2006.

Bush’s plan will put nine U.S. Army brigades (of 3,000-5,000 troops each) into Baghdad, roughly doubling the number of American soldiers in the capital. Moreover, U.S. forces will shift from mostly passive patrolling and presence missions to classic counterinsurgency strategy – the "clear, hold and build" tactics embodied in the new Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual. That means purging Baghdad’s most troubled districts of terrorists and sectarian death squads, then establishing an enduring neighborhood-by-neighboring presence of U.S. forces operating closely together with the Iraqi army and police.

Fittingly, indeed providentially, Bush has selected U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus as the new commander of all U.S. forces in Iraq. Petraeus, an inspirational leader and veteran of two Iraq tours, supervised drafting of the new Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual. He is a fervent advocate of the first principle of successful counterinsurgency: provide security for the civilian population.

Without that security, nothing else works — not sectarian reconciliation, not political reform, not economic reconstruction and certainly not credible governance.

Thus, for all the talk about a "political solution" to the Iraq war, the first and indispensable requirement is providing physical security for Iraq’s people, most especially the 5 million to 6 million in the greater Baghdad area where 80 percent of all the violence in Iraq currently occurs. Experience elsewhere in Iraq demonstrates that protecting the civilian population will yield immense political benefits, for U.S.-led coalition military forces and for the Iraqi government alike.

Gen. Petraeus’ Iraq credentials also include his Herculean efforts starting in 2004 to train, organize and equip a new Iraqi army. While the Iraqi army is still very much a work in progress, no American general knows more about its capabilities and how to improve them than does Petraeus.

Against Bush’s new strategy in Iraq, what are his critics offering as an alternative?

Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin delivered the Democrats’ formal response to Bush’s speech Wednesday evening. Said Durbin:

"The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating … escalation of this war is not the change the American people called for in the last election … the president’s plan moves the American commitment in Iraq in the wrong direction.

"It’s time to begin the orderly redeployment of our troops so that they can begin coming home soon."

Translation, we’re losing the war but let’s give up and come home anyway. Not a single word in Durbin’s brief speech was devoted to the consequences of a prompt American withdrawal from Iraq.

Durbin, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Sen. Edward Kennedy and the rest of the Democratic chorus opposing Bush’s troop surge and calling for withdrawal instead should reread pertinent parts of the bipartisan Baker-Hamilton report. However dubious its diplomatic proposals, the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group was emphatic in opposing a precipitous American withdrawal. It forecast, quite correctly, "catastrophic" consequences of an American defeat in Iraq.

The disintegrating Iraq that American withdrawal would leave could destabilize the entire Middle East. A violent vacuum in Iraq could ignite a region-wide Shiite vs. Sunni conflict. Undeniably, an American defeat in Iraq would embolden radical and extremist forces, al Qaeda included, across the Middle East.

None of this rated even a mention in Sen. Durbin’s cursory call for an American retreat.

So, if Bush’s plan looks late and no guarantee of success, it’s still a far better bet than the defeat by default proposed as an alternative.