It's all up to the president now. The James Baker public relations blitz will of course continue, and the members of Baker's Iraq Study Group will go to book signings and be regulars on morning TV, and maybe even go on a nationwide tour like the Rolling Stones. Alan Simpson will continue to underline the gravity and earnestness of the group's endeavors by insisting that anyone who disagrees with him (like, say, John McCain and Joe Lieberman) has "gas" and "B.O."--subjects about which, unlike the military situation in Iraq, he probably has real knowledge and expertise.
But as the James Baker-Alan Simpson Steel Wheels tour and vaudeville act drags on and ultimately passes into well-deserved oblivion, the problems that they failed seriously to address will remain. And responsible people in Iraq, in the Pentagon, and in the White House will have to decide, very soon, how to achieve the president's goal of creating a stable, secure, and democratic Iraq. The president's military and political advisers are reviewing options now. Presumably, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is taking a fresh look at the situation in Iraq and is open to any strategy that has a chance of succeeding.
We worry, however, that little good may come out of these reviews unless the president takes a role in the deliberations and provides specific direction. The collective wisdom of the president's advisers for the past three years has not produced a strategy to achieve his goals. Bush rightly rebuked the Baker commission for calling for early withdrawal from Iraq before the mission was completed. But the Baker group's recommendations were little more than an endorsement of the failed strategies of the past three years. Train the Iraqis and pull out U.S. forces? That was Don Rumsfeld's and General John Abizaid's approach from the beginning. No one was more eager to get out of Iraq than Rumsfeld, but his unwillingness to commit enough troops early in the occupation and in the years that followed have actually had the effect of prolonging the American presence in Iraq, as well as putting us on a downward path toward failure.
From what we can tell about deliberations within the administration, we would expect many of Bush's current advisers to recommend continuing roughly along this failed path. Abizaid remains in place, and in his Senate testimony at least, Gates did not challenge Abizaid's assertion that no more troops are needed. As recently as June, the New York Times's Michael Gordon reports, General George W. Casey Jr., the senior American commander in Iraq, came up with a plan to draw down American combat forces from 14 brigades to just 5, in the expectation that Iraqi forces would "pick up the slack." But, as Gordon reports, "no sooner did General Casey present his plan in Washington than it had to be deferred. With sectarian violence soaring in Baghdad, the United States reinforced its troops there." Nor was this a novel failure. In every year since the occupation began, senior military officials have set out plans to draw down American forces in the expectation that Iraqi troops would step in and fill the gap. And in every year, these plans have had to be abandoned. But Casey too is of course involved in the policy review.
And people and bureaucracies being what they are, it's not easy for them to change course, even when that course is obviously failing--unless they are instructed to take a different course by their commander in chief. The same people who brought us the current policy will likely recommend continuing it, albeit at a stepped-up pace. They will predictably focus on accelerating the training of Iraqi forces rather than on increasing the level of American combat forces sufficiently to do the job of securing Baghdad and other parts of Iraq as quickly as possible. It will be more of the same, only with a faster but, as in the past, unrealistic timeline. This could well be the last chance the administration has to turn things around in Iraq, but there is little sign yet that most of the president's advisers will propose the necessary dramatic shift.
That means the president will have to be, much more than he has been, his own general and strategist. He will have to decide on his own that incremental measures, such as stepping up the pace of Iraqi training, will not make enough of a difference in a short enough time to prevent a collapse of American policy and of Iraq itself. He will have to decide, contrary to the advice of many of his top advisers, that many more American troops need to be sent to Iraq, and as quickly as possible.
Of the many disappointments of the Iraq Study Group's report, none is greater than the failure (or was it unwillingness?) to offer any remotely plausible suggestions for bringing security and stability to significant parts of Iraq. The Baker group instead chose to entertain the fantasy that political reconciliation in Iraq can take place in the absence of basic security for the average Iraqi. But basic security for Iraqis is the prerequisite for any successful political reconciliation, because if the United States cannot provide protection to Iraqis, they have little choice but to turn to those who can, namely their own sectarian militias. People talk about what a power broker Moktada al-Sadr has become. But American policy made Sadr what he is today. First we failed to take him out of the game early on, when he posed less of a menace. Then our failure to protect the Shia from insurgent and terrorist attacks by al Qaeda and the Sunni insurgency all but guaranteed that many would turn to Sadr's army for such protection.
The Weekly Standard has been calling for a substantial increase in American forces in Iraq since the summer of 2003. More troops could have helped dramatically then, as almost everyone, including Gates in his Senate testimony, now agrees. Almost everyone now agrees more troops could have made a big difference in 2004 and 2005, too. And a rapid and substantial increase in American forces in Iraq remains key to solving our predicament today.
But isn't it too late? And are there troops to send?
No, it's not too late. And yes, the troops exist. We have addressed both these questions in recent weeks. Our colleague, Frederick W. Kagan, has written extensively in these pages and elsewhere on why 50,000 additional troops are needed in Iraq, what exactly they would do, and where they would come from. But you don't have to take our word for it.
General Jack Keane, the former Army vice chief of staff, who has traveled to Iraq frequently to meet commanders, has become an outspoken advocate for a substantial increase in American forces, especially in Baghdad. He has expressed disdain for those both inside and outside the Pentagon who claim that it is impossible to restore order there: "The notion that we can't provide protection for people in one of the capital cities of this world is just rubbish."
Keane is not alone. A few months ago, Army Maj. General Paul Eaton, who until his retirement had been in charge of building up the Iraqi Security Forces, told Senate Democrats what they didn't want to hear: that American force levels in Iraq were not nearly high enough, and that "we are, conservatively, 60,000 soldiers short." And the Wall Street Journal recently reported that "most military officers . . . seem to believe that a pullback of U.S. forces would only trigger more violence and make political compromise in the country impossible. These officers argue that 20,000 U.S. troops are needed to bring order to Baghdad. Another 10,000 U.S. soldiers would also be needed" as advisers to the Iraqi army. As the Journal reports, the officers "bristle at the idea that it is too hard or impossible."
Then there is retired general Anthony C. Zinni, staunch opponent of the Iraq war, close friend of Colin Powell, and former head of the Central Command under Bill Clinton. General Zinni rejects the entire logic of both the Baker report and current administration strategy. As he recently told the New York Times, "There is a premise that the Iraqis are not doing enough now, that there is a capability that they have not employed or used. I am not so sure they are capable of stopping sectarian violence." Instead of taking troops out of Iraq, Zinni, according to the Times, believes that "it would make more sense to consider deploying additional American forces over the next six months to 'regain momentum' as part of a broader effort to stabilize Iraq that would create more jobs, foster political reconciliation and develop more effective Iraqi security forces."
Beyond these generals and other military officers, an increasing number of political leaders support an increase in force levels in Iraq. First and foremost has been Sen. John McCain, who has long called for an increase in troops to Iraq and continues to believe it is the only workable answer. He is joined by Senate Armed Services Committee members Joseph Lieberman, John Cornyn, and Lindsey Graham. A new addition to this camp is the incoming House Intelligence Committee chairman, Rep. Sylvestre Reyes. The man who will have about as big a role as anyone in reviewing the course of Iraq policy over the next two years has recently called for an increase in American forces in Iraq of 20,000 to 30,000 troops "for the specific purpose of making sure [Iraqi] militias are dismantled."
We understand that many people don't even want to think about such possibilities. We note that most of those who denounce these proposals as unworkable, impossible, and indeed unthinkable simply want to leave Iraq as quickly as possible and don't want to hear any nonsense about actually trying to succeed there. This was certainly true of the Baker commission. One adviser to the commission recently admitted that the panel never sought to present a plan that could succeed. Former ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas W. Freeman candidly revealed to the Washington Post how Baker and his colleagues approached the problem of Iraq. "Very early on, the notion of achieving some sort of victory didn't take. So if victory is not possible and not feasible, even if you could define it, then what you're left with is to find some way to mitigate defeat." No surprise, then, that the commission did not come up with a plan that has any chance of producing success in Iraq.
President Bush, on the other hand, wants to succeed, and he has staked his presidency and his legacy for decades to come on the success of the Iraq mission. He has, after all, had many opportunities to give up on Iraq--notably, in the 2004 election year, and before this last round of congressional elections. He could have looked at various times for a "graceful exit." Last week he could have used this Baker commission, as so many people expected he would, to provide political cover for a retreat. Instead, President Bush has courageously stood firm.
Now he needs to display a different kind of courage. He has to take into his own hands the fate of Iraq and make his own decisions about what needs to be done. Of course, he should listen to all his advisers. But he must also know that his advisers, both civilian and military, have been failing him for the past three years. American policy, if it is to have any hope of turning the tide, must change dramatically in the next month or two. No one other than President Bush can make that change. No one other than the president can insist on policies that would save Iraq now. It is up to him to seize the moment. Indeed, the utter failure of the Iraq Study Group to propose a strategy that could work provides him a fresh opportunity to devise and implement a strategy that can.
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