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The Roads Not Taken By: Fred Barnes
The Weekly Standard | Wednesday, October 24, 2007


Last February, Senator Hillary Clinton proposed to cap the number of American troops in Iraq at their level on January 1, 2007--roughly 140,000--and begin a withdrawal within 90 days.

The purpose of her bill was stated in section 2:

If the President follows the provisions of this Act, the United States should be able to complete a redeployment of United States troops from Iraq by the end of the current term in office of the President.

That wasn't all Clinton had in mind. Should the Bush administration and the Iraqi government fail to meet "certain conditions" within 90 days, American troops would no longer be authorized to stay in Iraq. Clinton's conditions were tough and sweeping, including the convening of a conference on Iraq to "involve the international community and Iraq's neighbors" and the stripping of "sectarian and militia influences" from Iraqi security forces.

The Clinton measure was never voted on. But it contained the major elements--a troop drawdown, emphasis on diplomacy, pressure on the Iraqi government--of the "responsible" strategy for salvaging American interests now that the war in Iraq had been lost. At least that's how Democrats, liberals, more than a few Republicans, the foreign policy establishment, most of the media, and a majority of Americans questioned by pollsters saw the situation.

Now imagine if the Clinton plan had become law. Nine months after she submitted her bill, we can speculate about what it would have produced. Sectarian violence would probably have exploded, al Qaeda would have been left with a large, secure sanctuary west of Baghdad, Iranian interference in Iraq would have increased, the prospects for democracy and stability would have dimmed. And that's just for starters.

We don't have to speculate, however, about what Clinton would have prevented. That's not a matter of guesswork. The successes from deploying more American troops in Iraq and taking up the counterinsurgency strategy of General David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, would not have occurred. If Clinton had prevailed, the surge would have been impossible.

The same is true for practically every other proposal considered by the Democratic Congress on Iraq. Whatever the goal of the "responsible" plans--to end the war quickly, set a timetable for troop reductions, remove American troops from a combat role, focus the American effort solely on training the Iraqi army, make deployment of troops to Iraq more difficult, cut funding--the effect would have been to preclude the surge.

Like Clinton's bill, the "responsible" proposals were all based on the premise that the war in Iraq was lost. Now, the surge is proving that premise wrong. But had any of the proposals been enacted, we wouldn't have known this. We wouldn't have discovered the war is winnable and indeed now is being won, thanks to the surge.

What has the surge achieved? Al Qaeda is on the run in Iraq. The Sunni insurgency is rapidly waning. Sunni sheikhs have joined with American forces. More recently, Shia sheikhs have helped American troops to suppress the Mahdi Army of Moktada al-Sadr, the pro-Iranian mullah. Political reconciliation is stirring in the Iraqi provinces as sectarian turmoil eases. Oil revenues are being shared. Civilian and U.S. military deaths have fallen sharply. Iraq is less violent, more stable. These accomplishments are directly or indirectly attributable to the surge.

The surge involved three steps. The first was to secure Anbar province, declared hopelessly hostile territory by the American military in 2006 but by early this year the scene of a Sunni rebellion against al Qaeda. The second step was to take over the belt around Baghdad--exurbs, really--from which al Qaeda equipped and dispatched suicide bombers, many coming from Anbar, to Baghdad and other cities. The third was pacifying Baghdad itself.

Last fall, the idea of sending troops to Anbar and leaving them to provide security for Iraqi citizens was debated inside the Bush administration. There was strong sentiment to focus on Baghdad alone. But Steve Hadley, Bush's national security adviser, favored an alliance with the Sunni sheikhs in Anbar and urged the president to include Anbar in the new secure-and-hold strategy. Bush agreed and in his nationally televised speech last January specifically noted that 4,000 more troops would be sent to Anbar.

Had Clinton's or any of the other "responsible" plans for phasing out or downgrading the American military's role in Iraq been adopted, even this small step of seizing Anbar would have been impossible. And so would subsequent efforts to secure other provinces where al Qaeda and insurgents were strong, and to stabilize Baghdad.

Let's look back at three of those plans. Last March, the Senate voted on Majority Leader Harry Reid's bill to force Bush to begin pulling troops out of Iraq within 120 days--by early July. That, of course, was precisely when the last of the 20,000-plus new troops--the surge troops--would just have arrived in Iraq.

If Reid's measure had passed, either the new troops or other units would have had to depart Iraq immediately, with more withdrawals to follow. And the counterinsurgency strategy would have been a nonstarter. There wouldn't have been enough troops to carry it out. Without the increase, American troops would not have been able to protect Iraqi citizens while keeping al Qaeda and insurgents from finding safe havens.

So Reid's plan would have killed any chance to employ a new strategy that might reverse the course of the war, as the surge has. And that was Reid's intention.

The Iraq Study Group headed by James A. Baker III and Lee Hamilton had a different approach. It devoted a single sentence to a possible troop increase in Iraq in its 84-page report last December. The ISG could "support a short-term redeployment or surge of American combat forces to stabilize Baghdad, or to speed up the training and equipping mission, if the U.S. commander in Iraq determines that such steps would be effective." But that was a throwaway line, not a recommendation. The ISG didn't advocate a surge strategy.

On the contrary, the ISG concluded that "the long-term deployment of U.S. troops by itself" wouldn't improve security in Iraq. Already, 10 months after the ISG report was issued, the short-term surge has proved that notion to be false. Security in Iraq has unquestionably improved. The ISG favored embedding American troops in Iraqi units rather than having U.S. units serve alongside Iraqi brigades, as the surge called for. Again, the progress achieved by the surge, with American brigades in a combat role, indicates the ISG was wrong.

Democratic representative John Murtha of Pennsylvania, the chief critic of the war in the House, took another tack. He wanted to require military units to reach the highest level of readiness before being sent to Iraq, a level rarely achieved even in peacetime. This was the "slow bleed" strategy and would have delayed deployments and made the surge difficult and probably impossible to implement.

But Murtha, like Clinton, wanted to pull troops out of Iraq, not make it easier to send them in. Last week, I asked Mark Penn, the chief strategist for Clinton's presidential campaign, if she still favored withdrawing troops now that the surge is working. Oh, yes, Penn said. Clinton is as "committed" as ever to removing troops from Iraq. What about the surge? Clinton is still against that, too.


Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.


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