It turns out you only have to attend a White House Christmas party to find out where President Bush is headed on Iraq. One guest who shook hands with Bush in the receiving line told him, "Don't let the bastards get you down." Bush, slightly startled but cheerful, replied, "Don't worry. I'm not." The guest followed up: "I think we can win in Iraq." The president's reply was emphatic: "We're going to win." Another guest informed Bush he'd given some advice to the Iraq Study Group, and said its report should be ignored. The president chuckled and said he'd made his position clear when he appeared with British prime minister Tony Blair. The report had never mentioned the possibility of American victory. Bush's goal in Iraq, he said at the photo-op with Blair, is "victory."
Now Bush is ready to gamble his presidency on a last-ditch effort to defeat the Sunni insurgency and establish a sustainable democracy in Iraq. He is prepared to defy the weary wisdom of Washington that it's too late, that the war in Iraq is lost, and that Bush's lone option is to retreat from Iraq as gracefully and with as little loss of face as possible. Bush only needed what his press secretary, Tony Snow, called a "plan for winning." Now he has one.
It's not to be found among the 79 recommendations of Jim Baker's Iraq Study Group. The ISG report was tossed aside by the White House. Nor was the scheme leaked by the Pentagon last week ever close to being adopted. That plan would pull thousands of American troops out of a combat role and turn them into trainers of the Iraqi army. The result would be increased sectarian violence and an Iraqi army not yet equipped to quash the swelling insurgency-leading to a gap of time in which there would likely be a further--probably fatal--collapse of civic order in Baghdad, and then elsewhere in Iraq.
Last Monday Bush was, at last, briefed on an actual plan for victory in Iraq, one that is likely to be implemented. Retired General Jack Keane, the former vice chief of staff of the Army, gave him a thumbnail sketch of it during a meeting of five outside experts at the White House. The president's reaction, according to a senior adviser, was "very positive." Authored by Keane and military expert Frederick W. Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, the plan (which can be read at aei.org/publication25292) is well thought-out and detailed, but fundamentally quite simple. It is based on the idea--all but indisputable at this point--that no political solution is possible in Iraq until security is established, starting in Baghdad. The reverse--a bid to forge reconciliation between majority Shia and minority Sunni--is a nonstarter in a political environment drenched in the blood of sectarian killings.
Why would the Keane-Kagan plan succeed where earlier efforts failed? It envisions a temporary addition of 50,000 troops on the ground in Iraq. The initial mission would be to secure and hold the mixed Baghdad neighborhoods of Shia and Sunni residents where most of the violence occurs. Earlier efforts had cleared many of those sections of the city without holding them. After which, the mass killings resumed. Once neighborhoods are cleared, American and Iraqi troops in this plan would remain behind, living day-to-day among the population. Local government leaders would receive protection and rewards if they stepped in to provide basic services. Safe from retaliation by terrorists, residents would begin to cooperate with the Iraqi government. The securing of Baghdad would be followed by a full-scale drive to pacify the Sunni-majority Anbar province.The truth is that not all of Iraq needs to be addressed by an increased American presence. Most of southern Iraq and all of the Kurdish north are close to being free of sectarian violence. It's Baghdad that has become the "center of gravity" for the insurgency, according to Keane. And it could be brought under control by the end of 2007.
The Keane-Kagan plan is not revolutionary. Rather, it is an application of a counterinsurgency approach that has proved to be effective elsewhere, notably in Vietnam. There, Gen. Creighton Abrams cleared out the Viet Cong so successfully that the South Vietnamese government took control of the country. Only when Congress cut off funds to South Vietnam in 1974 were the North Vietnamese able to win.
Before Bush announces his "new way forward" in Iraq in early January, he wants to be assured of two things. The first is that his plan can succeed. Initial evaluations of the Keane-Kagan plan at the Pentagon and elsewhere in the government have been positive. Alone among proposals for Iraq, the new Keane-Kagan strategy has a chance to succeed. Bush's second concern is to avert an explosion of opposition on Capitol Hill. Because this plan offers a credible prospect of winning in Iraq, moderate Democrats and queasy Republicans, the White House thinks, will be inclined to stand back and let Bush give it a shot.
The sooner Bush orders the plan into action, the better chances are that next Christmas he'll be telling White House guests that winning in Iraq is not just a goal. It could actually be happening.