The Least Bad Plan

Friday, September 14, 2007

PRESIDENT BUSH'S explanation of his latest plans for Iraq last night was marred by a couple of important omissions. First, the president failed to acknowledge that, according to the standards he himself established in January, the surge of U.S. troops into Iraq has been a failure -- because Iraqi political leaders did not reach the political accords that the sacrifice of American lives was supposed to make possible. Instead he focused on the real but reversible military gains achieved in and around Baghdad and on the unexpected decision of Sunni tribes to take up arms against al-Qaeda, a development facilitated but not caused by the surge.

Mr. Bush also failed to mention one of the principal reasons for the drawdown of troops he announced. The president said that the tactical military successes meant that American forces could be reduced in the coming year to pre-surge levels. What he didn't say is that the Pentagon has no choice other than to carry out the withdrawals, unless Mr. Bush resorts to politically explosive steps such as further extending deployments. Another way of describing Mr. Bush's plan is that it leaves every available Army and Marine unit in place in Iraq for as long as possible. If the war were going worse than it is, the deployment schedule probably couldn't have been much different.

Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker have argued this week that the maximal troop levels are necessary to prevent Iraq from returning to the downward spiral into sectarian war it suffered before the surge. They also have emphasized that political accords will be slower in coming than Washington has expected, if they are achievable at all. Yet Mr. Bush's plan for the coming year is based, once again, on the hope that Iraqis will take steps that will make the added security provided by U.S. troops sustainable -- and prevent a worsening of the situation when American brigades withdraw. Though this hope proved illusory during the past eight months, there will be no change in the U.S. mission.

It's impossible not to be skeptical that the necessary political deals and improvements in Iraqi security forces will take place. Unless there is progress that justifies withdrawals going well beyond those he announced last night, Mr. Bush is unlikely to achieve the agreement in Washington on Iraq he said he now aims for. Still, there are no easy alternatives to the present policy. In the past we have looked favorably on bipartisan proposals that would change the U.S. mission so as to focus on counterterrorism and training of the Iraqi army, while withdrawing most U.S. combat units. Mr. Bush said he would begin a transition to that reduced posture in December. But according to Gen. Petraeus, Mr. Crocker and the consensus view of U.S. intelligence agencies, if the U.S. counterinsurgency mission were abandoned in the near future, the result would be massive civilian casualties and still-greater turmoil that could spread to neighboring countries.

Mr. Bush's plan offers, at least, the prospect of extending recent gains against al-Qaeda in Iraq, preventing full-scale sectarian war and allowing Iraqis more time to begin moving toward a new political order. For that reason, it is preferable to a more rapid withdrawal. It's not necessary to believe the president's promise that U.S. troops will "return on success" in order to accept the judgment of Mr. Crocker: "Our current course is hard. The alternatives are far worse."

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