Thursday, November 16, 2006

Too Little, Too Late?

The U.K. Guardian is out with details on a "last, big push by U.S. military forces in Iraq," aimed at curbing sectarian violence, restoring some degree of stability in Baghdad and allowing the redeployment of some forces to other areas. The plan--which will apparently be reflected in recommendations from James Baker's Iraq Study Group (ISG), calls for the deployment of up to 20,000 additional troops to that country early next year, as part of a "four point" victory strategy. Among the plan's elements:

--Putting more troops on the ground, at least temporarily. Sources told the Guardian that the number of additional troops could be as high as 20,000, or roughly the equivalent of a heavy division. Sending in more troops--and possibly extending tours for those already in Iraq--would give the U.S. more forces to secure Baghdad and reduce sectarian violence, for at least a few months.

--Urging more regional cooperation on Iraq, possibly by convening a conference including such countries as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Gulf States. The meeting would be used to solicit ideas on Iraq, and press for more aid/support for the struggling Iraqi regime. Participation by Syria and Iran in this process has not been confirmed, but U.S. officials have indicated their willingness to meet with representatives of both countries.

--Revive the national reconciliation process between Sunnis, Shias, Kurds and other factions, in an effort to create a viable political structure--one that is recognized and supported by other countries in the region.

--Increased resources to (a) fund increased U.S. troop deployments, and (b) more training for Iraqi military and security forces. This final part of the plan also calls for greater efforts to root out corruption within the Iraqi government.

After outlining the plan, the Guardian drifts off into Bob Woodward land, describing President Bush as being in a "state of denial" over Iraq. But their reporting on the proposed plan appears to be accurate, so that raises the more important question: will it work?

Reaction in the blogosphere seems underwhelming. Rick Moran at RightWing Nuthouse gives Mr. Bush credit for undercutting the ISG, and forcing them to offer a victory option, rather than the "cut-and-run" approach they seemed to favor only a month ago. But Rick, Ed Morrissey, Allah and others see the proposed deployment as a case of too little, too late. And, given the steady diet of bad news from Iraq, it's easy to consign the plan to the ash heap of failure, even before its implemented.

Bush critics will view this strategy as another example of his stubborness and inflexibility on Iraq, but I believe the President has little choice. Having staked his administration, his Middle East policy and indeed, his political legacy, to Iraq, Mr. Bush probably feels compelled to give the military option one last shot. If it somehow works, fine. The Iraqis can continue their wobbly march toward stability and democracy. If we fail, then start the pull-out in time for the '08 elections, and worry about the consequences later. The realpolitik reasoning goes something like this: put more troops into Baghdad, drive down the number of daily attacks, then use that as a "benchmark" of progress and a rationale for starting the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Declare victory in the fall of '07, and get most of the troops out before voters go to the polls again.

It's a hell of a gamble, and quite frankly, the future of Iraq should not come down to one last roll of the dice. But in post-election America, all bets are off and as we noted yesterday, political expediency now trumps military reality. Earlier this week, former Senator George McGovern recently met with a group of Congressional Democrats and outlined a strategy for getting out of Iraq by June, 2007. Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich is already pushing for a cutoff in funding for Iraq. Kucinich is a charter member of the Democratic kook fringe, and he won't get his wish--at least right now. But with his party officially committed to a withdrawal from Iraq, there is genuine concern as to how long the Democrats will keep writing checks to sustain the effort, even if the money is intended for Iraqi police and security forces.

But if Iraq goes down the tubes, you can't pin all the blame on Democrats. Fact is, we occupied a hostile country with ground forces that had been cut (and cut again) after the Cold War. Former Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki was applauded for noting that we would need 350,000 troops to pacify Iraq--as proof that the "Rumsfeld" strategy was fatally flawed. But no one bothered to point out that the Army and Marine Corps couldn't sustain that sort of deployment indefinitely, because we cut the equivalent of seven ground-force divisions under Bush '41 and Clinton. As we've noted before, military options are always constrained by force structure, and decisions made more than a decade ago have a direct bearing on today's battlefield. That doesn't get Don Rumsfeld completely off the hook, but it does place his decision-making in a slightly different context.

Put another way, the proposed increase in troop strength is about what we can afford, at least politically. And sadly, that deployment won't be enough to put on lid on the violence in Iraq and put that nation squarely on the road to peace and democracy. At best, the deployment of 20,000 additional troops will reduce the number of daily bombings and limit the actions of the death squads, at least for a while. That, in turn, will buy a little time for politicians of both parties, who can point to a "successful" exit strategy for Iraq, just in time for the 2008 presidential campaign. That may be a winning political hand, but it is absolutely horrible foreign policy. Looks like Osama bin Laden was right afterall: Americans (at least those in Washington) apparently don't have stomach for a long fight. If the proposed "victory strategy" flops (and I am hardly optimistic), we will haunted by its failure long after the last soldier leaves Iraq.

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