To salvage stability from what looks like inevitable chaos in Iraq, the United States needs a new strategy that produces security, political reconciliation and hope.
That should involve sending more U.S. troops – at least on a temporary basis – while pressuring the Iraqi government for reform and mounting a massive jobs project to reduce unemployment in the country.
It would be politically impossible for the Bush administration to increase U.S. troop levels after Democrats won the recent elections, but conceivably it could be done if the idea is blessed by the Iraq Study Group headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind.
Even though only 16 percent of Americans favor sending more U.S. troops, according to election exit polls, they’re desperately needed to secure Baghdad, to train Iraqi forces and undercut the population’s increasing dependency on sectarian militias.
The offer to send more troops ought to be contingent on the Iraqi government’s willingness to take steps, at long last, toward national reconciliation and its willingness to bring the militias under control.
To undergird the case, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki should be told that if he doesn’t take necessary steps – and soon – U.S. withdrawal will be inevitable, with disastrous consequences for him and his country.
The only major U.S. politician who is calling for more U.S. troops is Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., but he’s made a powerful case for years that the Bush administration was refusing to supply enough forces to secure the country.
As McCain said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, “We’re paying the price for the failure of our policy in the past and the question, then, before the American people is, are we ready to quit? And I believe the consequences of failure are chaos for the region, which will spread.”
Clearly, some Americans, mainly liberal Democrats, are ready to quit and have been ready for a long time, some even before hostilities began. The exit polls showed that 30 percent of Americans want to withdraw all U.S. troops, and that this group voted Democratic by a margin of 83 percent to 15 percent.
Among the raft of books analyzing the Bush administration’s mistakes in Iraq, Thomas Ricks’ “Fiasco” (Penguin, 2006) makes a compelling case that the anti-Iraq War side had it right at the beginning: Not only did Saddam Hussein not have weapons of mass destruction, but the Clinton administration’s much-criticized 1998 bombing raids nearly toppled his regime and made it entirely possible to contain Iraqi aggression.
And Ricks’ extensive interviews with (mainly retired) military commanders makes it sickeningly plain, for any supporter of the war like me, how carelessly former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his “neo-conservative” top civilian aides planned the war’s aftermath.
In Ricks’ telling, Rumsfeld and Co. were determined not to listen to any advice from any war doubters – notably, former CENTCOM commander Gen. Anthony Zinni and Secretary of State Colin Powell – and discarded extensive post-invasion plans drawn up by Zinni and the State Department.
Rumsfeld also fired or intimidated commanders who called for higher troop levels, seemingly determined to disprove the “Powell Doctrine,” that U.S. operations should be undertaken only with massive force.
The result was that, while allied forces won a quick a military victory, they could not establish security for the population, and massive looting, destruction and insurgency followed quickly.
The Rumsfeld decision to disband the Iraqi army – or not call its lower echelons back into being after it dissolved – also left hundreds of thousands of armed men unemployed and ready for mobilization by insurgent groups.
Despite widespread calls for Rumsfeld’s ouster, Bush stuck with him until last week – and might well have kept him aboard indefinitely, had Democrats not captured both chambers of Congress.
As any number of Republicans have complained privately, firing Rumsfeld much earlier – say, in September – would have signaled that Bush really meant to change strategies and might have tempered GOP losses in the elections.
Regardless of past errors, however, Bush, along with newly empowered Democrats, have to figure out a strategy that does not result in total chaos in Iraq, regional conflict among Iraq’s neighbors, creation of a terrorist state and an utter strategic defeat for the United States.
Even though the Baker-Hamilton commission hasn’t reported its recommendations yet, Democrats are calling for troop withdrawals, some leading to a full U.S. departure on a fixed deadline while others are on a phased basis beginning in four to six months with no fixed deadlines.
An increase in the U.S. troop presence – by, say, 50,000 personnel for Baghdad duty in 2007 – will be possible only if it comes with strong backing from the bipartisan commission. Such an idea has been rumored as among the steps being considered by the panel.
But no stability is possible in Iraq without a political settlement that ensures minority Sunnis adequate oil revenues and political representation. Democrats such as Sen. Carl Levin (Mich.) want to force Iraqi action by moving toward troop withdrawals.
Brookings Institution scholar Michael O’Hanlon says that Bush could well leverage the Democratic victory, and the prospect of withdrawals, to prod al-Maliki to take needed action, playing “good cop” to the Democrats’ “bad cop.”
O’Hanlon also told me he had recommended to the Baker-Hamilton commission that the U.S. mount a large-scale jobs program to reduce Iraqi unemployment from its astronomical levels of 30 percent to 50 percent.
One good result of the 2006 elections is that both parties are now responsible for Iraq policy. Bush and the Democrats should work together to achieve something that can be called success – or even victory.
(Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.)
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