Monday, December 18, 2006

Planning For Victory

Here's a news flash that will be encouraging to those of us who still believe that victory is possible in Iraq--So does President Bush. Fred Barnes, of The Weekly Standard, reports on the President's response to the recommendations of The Iraq Study Group:

It turns out you only have to attend a White House Christmas party to find out where President Bush is headed on Iraq. One guest who shook hands with Bush in the receiving line told him, "Don't let the bastards get you down." Bush, slightly startled but cheerful, replied, "Don't worry. I'm not." The guest followed up: "I think we can win in Iraq." The president's reply was emphatic: "We're going to win." Another guest informed Bush he'd given some advice to the Iraq Study Group, and said its report should be ignored. The president chuckled and said he'd made his position clear when he appeared with British prime minister Tony Blair. The report had never mentioned the possibility of American victory. Bush's goal in Iraq, he said at the photo-op with Blair, is "victory."

Now Bush is ready to gamble his presidency on a last-ditch effort to defeat the Sunni insurgency and establish a sustainable democracy in Iraq. He is prepared to defy the weary wisdom of Washington that it's too late, that the war in Iraq is lost, and that Bush's lone option is to retreat from Iraq as gracefully and with as little loss of face as possible. Bush only needed what his press secretary, Tony Snow, called a "plan for winning." Now he has one.

Barnes has what looks to be the inside scoop on what that plan for winning entails. I'm no foreign policy or military expert, but the approach Barnes suggests the administration is going to take seems reasonable and consistent with Bush's goals to me. It centers around increasing security and U.S. troop strength (by 50,000 troops) in strategic places, especially Baghdad, to limit violence and protect those who are cooperating with the Iraqi government. This has the potential of leading to more political cooperation, from people who right now are relying on sectarian violence to give them control over the country's future, when they find that alternate routes--the violent ones--are denied them. It would also enable those who are currently uncooperative out of fear of insurgent reprisals, rather than personal insurgent ambitions, to cast their lot with those who seek a peaceful and democratic Iraq.

The ISG report suggests removing many American soldiers from security duty, tasking them with training Iraqis instead, looking ultimately for a "graceful withdrawal", rather than a victory, but this approach fails to acknowledge what the fallout would be of handing things over to the Iraqis before real security is established. A violent and unstable situation would degrade even further, and people who are at this point refraining from entering into the fray would have almost no choice but to pick a faction and add to the violence to protect themselves. While training Iraqi security forces to take over their own security is the ultimate and ongoing goal, they simply are not ready for Coalition forces to dial down their security efforts. Barnes says the President's tack will be to continue the training efforts, while upping security personnel, clamping down on the instability that is hindering the political process. He says the new plan was "authored by Keane and military expert Frederick W. Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute":
It is based on the idea--all but indisputable at this point--that no political solution is possible in Iraq until security is established, starting in Baghdad. The reverse--a bid to forge reconciliation between majority Shia and minority Sunni--is a nonstarter in a political environment drenched in the blood of sectarian killings.
All of this doesn't seem that different from the goals, and on-the-ground realities, the President has had all along, but the addition of troops to accomplish these goals is where the plan takes a turn. The "new" approach steps up in large measure the level of U.S. activity to bring order to the chaos in Baghdad. Now one of the main questions is how Congress will react to the concept of increasing security in Iraq through temporarily increasing U.S. troop numbers, until the ever-expanding Iraqi police and military are fully trained and ready. It's uncertain how Congress will respond, since for a while now the focus of many, especially on the left, has been on withdrawing from Iraq as quickly as possible, without actually getting our tails slammed in the door of world opinion on the way out. Actually winning the war hasn't even seemed possible from the perspective of many politicians and pundits, for a long time. It is a key issue whether enough of them can be brought around to see the possibility of victory to support the President in actually increasing, rather than decreasing the troops. Barnes explains that some degree of cooperation from the new Congress is one of the President's concerns:
Before Bush announces his "new way forward" in Iraq in early January, he wants to be assured of two things. The first is that his plan can succeed. Initial evaluations of the Keane-Kagan plan at the Pentagon and elsewhere in the government have been positive. Alone among proposals for Iraq, the new Keane-Kagan strategy has a chance to succeed. Bush's second concern is to avert an explosion of opposition on Capitol Hill. Because this plan offers a credible prospect of winning in Iraq, moderate Democrats and queasy Republicans, the White House thinks, will be inclined to stand back and let Bush give it a shot.
What I would love to see is a few politicians setting aside their political (especially presidential) aspirations for long enough to think about what is best for the countries--ours and Iraq. Even other countries in the region (of which probably only Iran and Syria really want to see the insurgency continue) would benefit from the continued transformation of Iraq into a stable, democratic nation. Surely, if the loyal opposition here in the U.S. take off their "Bush is the enemy" hats for even a brief period, they can see that a victory in Iraq, even at a potentially higher cost, is still much to be preferred to a loss that leaves our credibility in tatters, and Iraq in ruins. (I tend to think that the costs would actually go down if we can really get control of the situation, but that's another post.) No matter whether they agreed with our entry into this war, it still must be possible for them to see a chance for honorable victory and support it, without sacrificing their principles and belief that we should never have gone there in the first place. Of course, the President hasn't actually presented this plan yet, but if Barnes is right, that day is coming, and I hope the Congressional response is supportive. It's what's best for Iraq. It's what's best for America, and if it happens to be what's best for the Bush administration too, well, then his opponents can comfort themselves with the realities of presidential term limits. This isn't about Bush. It's about doing what's right, and Congress and the media should get behind him on this one.

Update: Here's a somewhat different view.