Our military should come with a can't-miss-it label: Think Before Using. Faced with calls - some sincere, others politically desperate - to rush more soldiers to Baghdad, our overstretched Army is ready to salute and do as the president orders.
But the Army leadership has one reasonable request: A clear mission.
Here in Washington, the brigade of civilian "experts" insists that the answer to our Iraq problem is to surge our forces from stateside bases back to Baghdad to restore security. Sounds good . . . until you ask them exactly how they would use those troops.
What would the specific tasks be? "Restore security" is too vague - we need to identify no-nonsense objectives. And which new tactics would be authorized? Would the rules of engagement change?
How would we handle prisoners, given that a crackdown would generate tens of thousands (and the Iraqi system releases the worst offenders)? What if the Maliki government rejects our plan?
At that point, the think-tank boys give you a deer-in-the-headlights look and spurt empty generalities. Our military is supposed to figure out the pesky details.
But it's the details that make the difference between succeeding and failing. If you don't nail down the goals - and the methods to reach them - you're ducking the make-or-break issues. Our soldiers can't evade such questions.
Generalities and platitudes won't fix Iraq. But they will kill our men and women in uniform to no good purpose. Before we send them on such a difficult mission, we should at least be willing to face the difficult questions.
Army generals worry that frantic politicos want to send more troops to Iraq as a p.r. stunt, to appear to be taking decisive action. Our uniformed leadership is rightly loathe to have our troops used to give anyone's approval ratings a temporary boost. They'll do what they're ordered to do and do it well. They just want the mission to have a chance of success that justifies the human and strategic cost.
Could an increase of 20,000 to 40,000 troops make a difference?
Yes - but only if they're assigned a clear, achievable mission and our government stands behind them solidly as they carry it out. Sending more troops in the vague hope that it will magically improve the situation would be a travesty.
Iraq isn't hopeless - but it's harder every day to maintain hope. The number of troops certainly matters, but, as this column long has argued, the vital issue is how our troops are used. If we're serious about defeating our enemies this time, more troops could help. But there's no excuse for simply deploying more IED targets in uniform.
Which brings us to the one approach that could make Baghdad a secure, livable city: Zero tolerance.
Rudy Giuliani had that one right, as New Yorkers know. Crack down on petty violators, and violent crime drops, too. Of course, fixing Baghdad would require a lot more than taking on turnstile jumpers - but the principle is the same, if the scale is different.
We've never been willing to do all it takes to win. Now the clock's running out. Without a comprehensive crackdown, Baghdad (and Iraq) will be lost irrevocably in 2007. If we stayed on for a decade, we'd only be keeping the patient on life-support.
Suppose we do ask our under-strength, under-funded Army to send 40,000 more troops to secure Baghdad. Below are just a few examples of the kind of hard-to-swallow and hard-to-do measures President Bush would need to back, if the deployment were meant as more than a forlorn hope:
* Zero tolerance for weapons possession in the streets or in vehicles. The authorities must have a monopoly on force.
* Foot patrols - soldiers must get out of their vehicles and "walk the beats." Initially, this could cause a spurt in casualties - but there's no alternative to knowing the turf. Once average citizens as well as our enemies know we're serious and that we're staying on the block, attacks will drop. Presence rules. We have to occupy neighborhoods.
* Automatic, no-early-release prison terms for the possession, transfer or transport of military weapons and related paraphernalia.
* Rigid enforcement of all public-space laws, from shutting down black markets in gasoline to enforcing traffic codes.
* Temporary movement restrictions, with passes required for any person desiring to leave his neighborhood and enter another. Identify who belongs where.
* Simultaneous crackdowns on Shia militia and Sunni insurgent strongholds. Establish the principle that we go where we want, when we want - and stay as long as we want.
* Thorough searches of every building in Baghdad. No safe havens - not even mosques (trusted Iraqis can help). Structures used as weapons-storage facilities or safe houses for armed factions to be leveled.
* Disarmament of all private security elements in Baghdad not vetted by U.S. authorities. Foreign security contractors subject to Iraqi law.
If we're unwilling to take such stern measures, we won't make durable progress, no matter how many troops we send.
Who would resist such a program? There's the problem. The partisan Maliki government would refuse to go along with a crackdown on Shia militias. Unless we're willing to overrule the regime we recently celebrated, none of this can happen.
And, of course, the media would accuse us of a war crime every five minutes. The global media want Iraq to fail and revel in the current level of suffering. If we're unwilling to defy the media, Iraq is finished.
Oh, and that increase in troop strength would have to last two years.
It all comes back to President Bush. If he won't lay out clear goals, then approve a serious plan to achieve them, sending more soldiers to Iraq would only worsen our problems in the long term. If a troop boost failed to produce results, it would further encourage our enemies while crippling our worked-to-the-bone ground forces.
Send more troops? Only if we mean it.
Click Here to support Frontpagemag.com.