Whatever happened to political expediency? That, as much as the questions raised by the speech itself, was what Wednesday's presidential address surely left many pundits wondering. In nothing Bush said, after all, was there even the slightest trace of partisan calculation. Save for a few throw-away lines about handing over all provinces to Iraqi forces by November and getting Iraq's prime minister to behave like a prime minister, it was all bitter medicine.
Bush supporters will adduce from this yet more evidence of his resolve. Detractors will say he's immune to the will of the people. Depending on your view of Iraq, Bush is either FDR dragging a petulant nation deeper into a necessary war, or he's Nixon sheltered behind buses while students protest the invasion of Cambodia. But this much at least was evident tonight: Bush's certitude — which the press hailed as resolve after September 11 but which it now labels obstinacy — remains his signature.
So will the president's stubbornness — or, if you're inclined, pig-headedness — further America's cause in Iraq? That depends first on whether one believes the war to be winnable or not. Where Bush comes down on the question is clear. According to The New York Times, Bush recently instructed Marine commandant General James T. Conway, "What I want to hear from you is how we're going to win, not how we're going to leave." Fair enough. But did anything Bush say point to a "win"? Actually, it did. Or, more exactly, it established some necessary, though hardly sufficient, preconditions for success.
First, the surge. A popular fiction circulating in the press has the nation's military commanders all but unanimous in their opposition to sending more troops to Iraq — Exhibit's A, B, and C being General John Abizaid, General George Casey, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But the generals themselves are divided, with Lt. General David Petraeus and Lt. General Raymond Odierno on the other side. Further, none of these men are, strictly speaking, serving as ground commanders in Iraq. It is the rare field officer who will say, "I don't want any reinforcements," and, in fact, American brigade commanders in Iraq have been the chief behind-the-scenes authors of the surge. But the logic of the surge extends beyond the numbers game. The relevant question here is not the Vietnam-era cliché, "How much is enough?" It is, "What will they do?"
In that regard, and after nearly four years of stumbling in the dark, the president seems finally to have grasped what junior officers in Iraq grasped in 2003. There was, to begin with, the president's emphasis on deploying American forces to "protect the local population" — something that, as banal as it sounds, hasn't been a theater-wide mission. Traditionally understood, the path to defeating an insurgency runs through the population, without whose support insurgents can be forced to fight in the open. Securing control of the population depends, in turn, on guaranteeing its physical security and — through social programs, civic assistance, and the like — winning its allegiance. Even now, however, there are still brigades in Iraq that routinely launch big-unit sweeps, rely heavily on firepower, and otherwise employ conventional tactics against an unconventional foe.
Then, too, the president finally put to rest the myth of the "light footprint" — the canonical belief that U.S. forces should be visible only when chasing insurgents back and forth through the same towns, but otherwise hunker down on their forward operating bases. In his assertion that Americans — and not just Iraqis — will "hold areas that have been cleared," Bush drew on the indisputable fact that, where Americans do not operate in Iraq, nothing else does.
But then comes the hard part: What happens when the newly-surged Americans stop holding and start clearing again, which they eventually must? Here, Bush had no satisfactory answer — and, frankly, it's not so clear there is one. He mentioned working hand in hand with "National Police brigades" to tamp down sectarian violence. But the National Police are among the worst perpetrators of this violence. Indeed, American commanders now largely confine their "cooperation" with these police brigades to ensuring they don't leave their barracks. Similarly, the president, alluding to the Iraqi decision to shut down a U.S. operation in Sadr City, said Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki vowed he would not let this happen again. But Maliki himself was the one who blocked the operation.
There is, finally, the broader question of allocating U.S. resources in Iraq. Bush, for example, promised to double the number of provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs). But this amounts to doubling nothing. The PRTs, designed to marshal the expertise of U.S. civilian government agencies like the Justice Department, barely exist over a year after they were unveiled. With just over 100 civilians from U.S. government agencies (excluding the CIA) working outside bases and the Green Zone — compared with over 2,000 fanned out across South Vietnam's provinces — the job of reconstructing, pacifying, organizing, and doing everything else in Iraq has fallen to young Army captains.
Further, it's far from obvious that sending five brigades to Baghdad and 4,000 troops to Anbar makes sense. The president rightly pointed out that 80 percent of Iraq's sectarian violence occurs in and around Baghdad. But the chances that U.S. forces will succeed at pacifying the sectarian rage there seem awfully slight. By contrast, nearly half of all insurgent violence — which is to say violence directed at U.S. forces — occurs in the Al Qaeda stronghold of Anbar. Not only are America's interests more immediately threatened there; America's prospects for success are much greater.
But these are quibbles. What the president did not mention was that, on the only battlefield that matters — the living rooms into which his speech was televised — it's probably too little and too late. An effective counterinsurgency strategy requires time and patience. Americans have run out of both.
By Lawrence F. Kaplan
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