PRESIDENT Bush will take to the nation's airwaves the first week in January with a speech announcing his new strategy in Iraq. His decision to delay the speech is, I suspect, a signal that his announcement will be dramatic - a second public declaration of war in Iraq.
I think he wants to get all the machinery moving and all the pieces in place, at which point he can declare with a flourish that "Operation Victory" has begun. That could mean the "surge" being discussed in Washington - the commitment of up to 50,000 more U.S. troops to secure Baghdad.
Yet for all the focus on the numbers, the truth is that the surge is more about time. According to one of its chief designers, retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, the Baghdad operation will take six months at a minimum - and, assuming its success, will be followed by similar efforts to secure chaotic Anbar province.
Former Secretary of StateColin Powell, once the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Sunday that he didn't see how a troop surge would make a difference because there was a minor surge in the summer of 2006 and it didn't quiet down Baghdad.
This puts Powell on the same page with the man with whom he supposedly clashed on the war, Donald Rumsfeld - who made clear last week as he was leaving the Pentagon how skeptical he was of committing new troops to a "combat situation."
Powell and Rumsfeld also agree on what tactics to use if we are to win the war in Iraq: training, training, training. Let's train the Iraqis and get out by the middle of 2007. Powell calls it the "baton pass," though he might have just used the word "escape" and been done with it.
The problem with Powell's likening the current "surge" idea to last summer's surge is that Keane designed the new plan as a counterweight to what happened six months ago.
As Keane said on Sunday, "We cleared out the insurgents and the Shia death squads from the areas but never committed ourselves to phase two of the operation, which is significant, and that is to put a 24/7 force in the neighborhoods to protect the people . . . [so that] they do not go back to their bases at night."
The Keane plan (drafted with military thinker Fred Kagan) also includes a package of economic incentives to employ Iraqis and give them a specific reason to help the effort along - also ideas that are anathema to Rumsfeld, who wants Iraqis to "pull up their socks" so we can "pass the baton" to them, Powell style, just in time for a mass slaughter.
So Powell is wrong here. The Keane-Kagan plan is not just the same old same old. It's a reversal of field. Very specifically, it's a repudiation of the Rumsfeld concept for fighting in Iraq - which was to approach everything with a "light footprint," lest we seem too heavy-handed and imperialistic.
This is a "heavy footprint." If we do this, we will be saying we will engage and roust the enemy and then stay put for a while. Show our presence. Make it clear to the Iraqis that we're not bugging out.
Ironically, it's only with this kind of time that the "train, train, train" option becomes a viable security measure for Iraq's future - because training takes time, too.
Can it work?
That may be the wrong question. The right question may be: Will America allow it to work?
When you use an army to "establish security," you are not engaging a police force. You are assigning the task to highly armed men who aren't trained as police officers. You are talking about sending soldiers door to door, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood.
They're going to shoot people. They're going to blow up buildings, as they did in Fallujah.
They're going to be engaged in firefights by insurgents, and they're going to return fire. That will result in civilian casualties on the streets of Baghdad (or, as we saw in Lebanon last summer, in insurgent and militia casualties that we will be told falsely are civilian casualties).
What happens when these horrible tragedies of war occur? Will America's leading centrists - the politicians, anchorpersons, editorialists, writers and speakers who haven't quite given up on the mission in Iraq - discuss these events as part and parcel of an effort to save the people of Baghdad from chaos and carnage as we attempt to act decisively to win the war?
Or will they, instead, retreat in horror from the images on their TV sets and denounce the barbarous nature of the new U.S. mission? Will they see the battle for Baghdad as a heroic and dangerous task or as the new Abu Ghraib on a larger scale?
The toxic nature of the discussion on Iraq guarantees there will be Abu Ghraib-like talk from some quarters. If it becomes the dominant talking point, there's no way we will be able to sustain the mission, for it will be derailed by war-crime accusations and congressional hearings.
I'm trying to find a way to conclude these thoughts on a hopeful note.
And . . . nope. Sorry.
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