Mr. Bush's Strategy

Thursday, January 11, 2007

PRESIDENT BUSH is right to recognize that U.S strategy in Iraq is not working and to seek a different policy. He is right to insist that the United States cannot afford to abandon the mission and to reject calls for an early withdrawal. But the new plan for the war Mr. Bush outlined last night is very risky. It envisions new missions and dangers for U.S. troops and counts on unprecedented military and political steps by the Iraqi government. The plan is likely to cause a spike in U.S. casualties, while the chances that it will stabilize Iraq are far lower. Moreover, Mr. Bush appears prepared to embrace this approach despite strong opposition from Congress and the public -- setting up a conflict that in itself could hurt the war effort.

The president could have adopted a course that would have attracted broad support domestically and from Iraqis. That was the strategy -- outlined with small variations by U.S. military commanders, the Iraqi government and the Iraq Study Group -- that called for an acceleration of training of the Iraqi army and a gradual handing over of responsibility for fighting insurgents. The U.S. military presence would have decreased in the coming year, but enough troops would have remained to prevent the government's collapse, strike al-Qaeda and prevent intervention by Iraq's neighbors.

Instead, Mr. Bush has chosen to increase the number of Army troops and Marines and to broaden their mission. U.S. forces will be asked to pacify Baghdad in conjunction with Iraqi army and police units. Two attempts last year to stop sectarian war in the capital failed; the president says this effort will be different because more U.S. and Iraqi troops will be involved and because Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government has promised to prevent "political and sectarian interference." If the plan proceeds, we hope U.S. forces succeed without heavy casualties. But even if they do, the victory will be temporary. U.S. forces cannot sustain the planned "surge" for long, and Baghdad will not be truly pacified until Iraqis can enforce the peace.

The administration hopes that in the window of security opened by U.S. troops, economic reconstruction will resume and political leaders will reach the accords necessary to end sectarian warfare. Much is expected of the Iraqis in the coming months: First, the government will have to deliver promised army units to the capital and send them into action, including against Shiite militias; then it will have to work out deals on sharing Iraq's oil revenue, rehabilitating former members of the Baath Party and reshaping the constitution. It will have to hold local elections and begin delivering services to all parts of the country.

Mr. Bush decided against the consensus strategy favored by the Iraq Study Group because he believed it would not prevent sectarian war from escalating. That may be right. But the president's policy poses a different danger: that Iraqi troops and Iraqi leaders won't deliver on the steps expected of them during what must be a relatively short time, even as American soldiers fight to secure Baghdad -- and, almost certainly, die in larger numbers than before. It also means launching a mission that -- until now, at least -- has not had the domestic support that should accompany the commitment of troops to battle.

If the United States is not to abandon Iraq to its enemies, the U.S. mission needs to be sustainable, in both military and political terms, over the years it may take Iraqis to stabilize their country. Mr. Bush is betting that a boost in U.S. troops and aid can accelerate that process. If he is wrong, a continued American presence in Iraq may become untenable. The president must do more to persuade the country that the sacrifice he is asking of American soldiers is necessary. And if Iraqis do not deliver on their own commitments in the coming weeks, he must reconsider his strategy -- and suspend the U.S. reinforcements.

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