At his press conference on October 4, President Bush took a question about the number of Iraqi military units engaged in fighting insurgents and terrorists. Bush, the reporter noted, had once said there were 100 Iraqi battalions in combat "across the nation." But in an appearance on Capitol Hill, two U.S. Army generals had recently said "there's only one battle-ready battalion" of Iraqi soldiers, according to the reporter. "Something is not adding up here."
Bush offered only a little help in reconciling the numbers. "Right now there are over 80 [Iraqi] battalions fighting alongside coalition troops," he said. "There are over 30 Iraqi battalions in the lead. And that is substantial progress from the way the world was a year ago." But what about the single "battle-ready" unit of Iraqi troops? Bush didn't say.
The result was confusion, as with so much else about Iraq when viewed from Washington. This is not solely the fault of a press corps unsympathetic to the Bush administration and the war in Iraq. The president and the generals had tried to say the same thing about Iraqi troops, but ended up sounding like they were contradicting each other. Reporters, most of them anyway, didn't go to the trouble of straightening out the numbers.
This was not the only recent instance of unnecessary confusion about what's happening in Iraq. Take the constant flow of advice from Washington figures and organizations on military strategy. Many insist they have a plan for Iraq while the Bush administration doesn't. In truth, their advice often consists of exactly what the military is already doing. Furthermore, the administration does have a strategy for winning, but it hasn't gotten that fact across in Washington or around the country.
The repercussions of these communications failures are serious. Impressive strides have been made in recent months on the political and military tracks in Iraq. Sunnis who boycotted the January 30 election are registering in droves to vote in the referendum on the new constitution on October 15 and the parliamentary election on December 15. Progress against the insurgents and terrorists has been even more striking. But few people know about these gains.
At the same time — basically over the summer — public support for the intervention in Iraq and for the broader war on terror fell sharply. And that, understandably, alarmed the White House. The response was a series of speeches last week on Iraq and terror by Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The thrust of these addresses was that terror attacks by Islamic extremists remain a threat and that the best way to thwart the terrorists is by defeating them in Iraq.
The speeches were initially scheduled for August and early September, but were postponed because of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In his address, Bush went out of his way to knock down the notion that the American presence in Iraq "has somehow caused or triggered the rage of radicals." The United States, he noted, was "not in Iraq on September the 11th, 2001, and al Qaeda attacked us anyway. The hatred of the radicals existed before Iraq was an issue and it will exist after Iraq is no longer an excuse."
The mixup came over the four categories that measure the level of independence of Iraqi forces. About 80 battalions "are assessed as fighting alongside our forces," Petraeus said. Bush got that right. They belong to category three. Only one battalion needs "no coalition assistance whatsoever — i.e., fully independent." That's category one. A "substantial number" of another 35 "have their own areas of operation," but fight with American soldiers embedded in their units. These "allow coalition units to focus elsewhere or eventually to go home." They comprise category two. So Iraqi battalions rated one, two, and three add up to roughly 115 "battle-ready" units — not one. Category four troops aren't ready for combat.
Many groups and individuals have accused the administration of having no plan for victory in Iraq. They are not being disingenuous. They are honestly — and through no fault of their own — in the dark, as are millions of Americans.
So the Democratic Leadership Council, explaining "what to do now in Iraq," said "the primary responsibility of defending" Iraq should be shifted to the Iraqi military. On the political front, the DLC said, an effort should be made to win Sunni support for the new government. The DLC offered this advice just a month ago. In June, Senator Joe Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, urged the administration to emphasize the training of officers in the Iraqi army. "That's the only way, in my view, to stand up ultimately an Iraqi military when it comes under fire," he said in a speech to the Brookings Institution. All of this is good advice, and all these recommendations were adopted months ago by the U.S. military in Iraq.
The administration indeed has a plan: Weaken the Sunni insurgents and turn the job of defeating them over to Iraqis; isolate the Islamic jihadists and let American Special Forces commandos deal with them; and, finally, woo Sunnis to the new government through the appeal of democracy. It's a simple plan, and at the moment it's working.
Former president Bill Clinton said last week that Iraq looks like "a quagmire." He's wrong. On the subject of Iraq, it's Washington that looks more like a quagmire. That was true in Vietnam, too. By the mid-1970s, America was winning in Vietnam, but support in Washington and the country had plummeted. Now we're winning in Iraq and beginning to lose at home. That's a recipe for defeat.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.