On Wednesday night, President George W. Bush addressed the nation about a new Iraq strategy. Did the president say what needed to be said? Will it help? National Review Online asked a group of experts and commentators.
A couple of things come to mind:
1. War is too important to be left (completely) to the generals. It was about time the White House took back the strategy from the Pentagon.
2. More U.S. troops aren’t the complete answer, but it’s a good start. With war being fundamentally political, national reconciliation in Iraq is really the key.
3. The president is right to shift the burden to the Iraqis.
4. For the Iraqi political leadership, it has to be deeds — not just words — from here on out.
5. Finally, it’s clear from last night’s post-speech response that the Democratic congressional leadership still doesn’t have a plan for victory in Iraq other than thwarting the president’s efforts.
– Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense.
Clark S. Judge
The president needed to show he was without illusions. His description of our past offensives and the counteroffensives against us — including that we’d posted insufficient troops to hold ground we’d taken — sounded candid and correct, at least to me.
He needed to lay out a plausible plan, one that included an element of surprise. The troop surge had been advertised. But disrupting infiltration across the Iranian and Syrian borders, loosening the rules of engagement, going after al Qaeda in Anbar Province, and flooding absolutely every part of Baghdad with troops went beyond where the rumor mills had him and again, to me, sounded right.
The president must move fast. The speech has brought him time, but not much. The Democrats probably won’t dare block him, yet. But six months from now — even three — will be another story, unless our forces are producing results. He must ride his generals relentlessly. He can expect the media to report some early successes as failures. So he must keep pushing the pace of events, not allowing any one story to define the news for more than a day or two. Like Churchill, his watchwords must be, “Action this day.”
– Clark Judge is managing director of the White House Writers Group, Inc., a policy and communications consulting firm based in Washington. He was a special assistant and speechwriter to President Reagan.
Clifford D. May
There are really only three options:
1) Stay the course. At this point, just about everyone believes the course we have followed for the past year has not worked. The Rumsfeld/Abizaid strategy was not an incoherent strategy (training Iraqis to “stand up so Americans could stand down”) but against opponents adept at inciting sectarian strife it failed to get the job done, failed to establish metrics of success more convincing than the televised metrics of failure.
2) Accept defeat. Call it “redeployment,” do it quick (Murtha’s way) or do it slow (a la Baker/Hamilton). It still would mean the U.S. had met its match on the mean streets of Baghdad. And it would mean that those dispatching the suicide bombers, the most ruthless and barbaric elements in Iraq (and in Iran and Syria) would emerge victorious. To them would go the spoils.
Nor would it be America’s last defeat. How many suicide-bombers would be required in the markets of Kabul before the chaos and carnage drove us out of Afghanistan as well? And then how long before Pakistan recognized who was the strong horse and who was the weak horse and switched its allegiance back where it used to be? How long before Jordan, Bangladesh and other countries sought accommodation with Tehran (a regime that knows how to project power in the 21st century) and distanced themselves from the United States (which will have demonstrated that it does not)? Bye-bye Lebanon.
3) Try a new strategy. We said early on that, in Iraq, failure was not an option. We never said that the first strategy had to be the right strategy or that the generals in charge in the beginning had to be in charge at the end.
My reservations: Are 20,000 troops enough to get the job done? Can Iraqis shoulder the considerable burdens this plan requires of them? Can Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki stand and deliver? I’m hopeful, but that’s not as good as confident.
– Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.
Mackubin Thomas Owens
The president’s speech was adequate. He said the right things. The question of course is whether or not the plan he outlined can be implemented.
In terms of substance, the president’s plan is not so much a true innovation as an adaptation to the changing circumstances in Iraq. Until February of last year, our operational strategy in Iraq — “clear, hold, build” — seemed to be working, because the main problem in Iraq was the Sunni insurgency centered in al Anbar.
But when Sunni extremists destroyed the Shia mosque in Sammarah, sectarian violence exploded, especially in Baghdad. American and Iraqi troops had to redeploy to confront the new threat, and in doing so, the gains that had been achieved in the war against the Sunni insurgents were lost.
The plan outlined last night is a response to these changing conditions. The main reason for the so-called surge is to provide enough troops to provide security for Baghdad while regaining the initiative against the Sunni in al Anbar.
Will it work? That depends on two factors: the Iraqi government and the Congress. The fact is that most deaths in Iraq today are the result of attacks by Shia militias against Sunnis. But until now, these Shia militias have been off-limits. That has to change, and President Bush put Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on notice that this is the case.
Congress is another matter. The Democrats, who would rather see Bush lose than the United States win, can be expected to make life miserable for the president and his approach. Hopefully, the Democratic majority will limit itself to rhetorical opposition, since they have no alternative except withdrawal and defeat. The worst case would be for the Democrats to do what a previous Democratic majority did: cut off funding for the war and leave the Iraqi people to the tender mercies of both Sunni and Shia extremists.
We can only hope that they will be deterred by the recognition that our abandonment of South Vietnam remains the single most shameful act in the history of U.S. foreign policy. So success will depend on whether or not shame is a part of the makeup of the new congressional majority.
– Mackubin Thomas Owens is an associate dean of academics and a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He is writing a history of U.S. civil-military relations.
President Bush articulated a comprehensive and intelligent strategy to turn the tide in Iraq. The new strategy deals with some major shortcomings in the Iraq theater over the past few years: lack of pressure on the Iraqi government to take charge of security and rein in Muqtada al-Sadr and the militias; restrictive rules of engagement; the absence of the Commander’s Emergency Response Program, which puts cash in the hands of combat commanders; the absence of a public campaign against Iran and Syria; lack of involvement of State, Commerce, and other important U.S. institutions at a provincial level. The new Iraq strategy provides solutions to these problems.
Questions still remain. Are 17,500 U.S. troops enough to secure Baghdad? Are we devoting too few forces to Anbar? Will the Iraqi government follow through on its pledge to deal with Sadr and the militias? Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki has balked in the past, but his recent statements have been encouraging. Will Iran, which is rightfully a charter member of the Axis of Evil, be dealt with meaningfully? The strategy towards Iran and Syria appears to be largely defensive, although the public announcement of the deployment of carrier battle groups and Patriot missile batteries sends a strong message. Will the changes in the rules of engagement include ending the dangerous and demoralizing “catch and release” program, where arrested insurgents are freed and allowed to return to the streets, where they continue committing attacks due to an overly generous military justice system? Are State, Commerce, and other civilian agencies truly committed to success in Iraq? Their commitment to date has been paltry, and the U.S. military has shouldered the burden of reconstruction the country.
– Bill Roggio is president of Public Multimedia, Inc., writes at billroggio.com, and recently embedded in Iraq.
James S. Robbins
I was intrigued with the promise that this time around “Iraqi and American forces will have a green light to enter [previously off-limits] neighborhoods [in Baghdad] — and Prime Minister Maliki has pledged that political or sectarian interference will not be tolerated.” The neighborhood in question is Sadr City, and the interference is the tacit alliance between the government and the so-called Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr, one of the leading suppliers of Shiite death squads in Iraq. This will be read by Sunnis and some Shiites as a response to their legitimate concerns about al-Sadr’s activities. But will the promise stick? Last October, US forces participated in raid in Sadr City in pursuit of death squad leaders. The operation was approved by the Iraqi government, but Prime Minister al-Maliki publicly denied prior knowledge of the attack in order to dodge responsibility. We can’t stand for that. So hopefully as U.S. and Iraqi forces begin cleaning out Sadr City, al-Maliki will do the right thing and stand behind the operations. If not I’m sure our five brigades have better things to do with their time.
The other noteworthy section was the promise that the US would “interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.” Hopefully this will involve cross-border action against insurgent safe havens and supply lines in Iran and Syria, as well as high-seas intercepts of ships carrying men, money and materiel that will eventually be used against our forces in Iraq. The insurgency will never be quelled so long as these powers are allowed to act against us with impunity. How many more Americans have to die at the hands of Hezbollah snipers or be killed or maimed by Iranian IEDs before we call them to account? This action has been long overdue, and one hopes that we pursue these networks with vigor.
The key to any plan for Iraq is accountability — making the Iraqis live up to their promises. The critical challenge in this regard is diverging interests. We want to leave; the Iraqi leadership wants us to stay. So long as we stay, their government will be secure, and they will enjoy increasing amounts of financial assistance. If we leave, the regime will be threatened, and aid and other monies will be reduced, if not eliminated. Carrots and sticks — but heretofore the Iraqis have had the option of taking the carrot without dealing with the stick. Under the president’s new plan the Iraqi government has pledged a number of things, and like previous pledges, they may or may not meet them. But the situation will not improve until our interests correlate. I think the Democratic Congress will see to that. The Iraqi government must understand that if the situation does not improve the Congress will take the funding situation out of the presidents hands. So it’s now or never. If they don’t get their act together by the next continuing resolution, the party will be over.
– James S. Robbins is author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point.
Joseph Morrison Skelly
There were clearly moments during his speech on Wednesday evening when President Bush said what needed to be said, at both the tactical and strategic levels. The key comment with regard to tactical operations in Iraq was the president’s recognition that “The most important priority for success in Iraq is security, especially in Baghdad.” This is undeniably true. The achievement of other essential objectives in the country – economic development, the reconstruction of the infrastructure, the establishment of the rule of law, the consolidation of constitutional government, the revitalization of civil society – will remain in a state of suspended animation until the violent Sunni insurgency, the roaming Shiite death squads, and the vicious al Qaeda terrorist cells are neutralized, that is, until they are crushed.
Will a presidential comment like this help? Yes, since it establishes security as the primary short term objective in Iraq. The next step is to translate this rhetorical passage into operational reality via the broader implementation of a viable counterinsurgency model – “clear, hold, build” – that is already being utilized in parts of the country and that President Bush alluded to in his speech. The surge of 20,000 – 25,000 troops is the sine qua non for its success in Baghdad and Al Anbar province. This model has proved its mettle in other places when substantial American and Iraqi troops have been employed, as in, for instance, the city of Tal Afar, a battlefield victory that is described in a recent article by Lieutenant Colonel Chris Gibson in Military Review, the professional, peer-reviewed journal of the U.S. Army. “Without security, nothing else matters,” Gibson contends. But with it, much is possible, especially when local Iraqis see that counterinsurgency forces “offer a better vision for the future than the insurgent forces do.”
At the strategic level, one of President Bush’s most important remarks was his assertion that “Succeeding in Iraq also requires defending its territorial integrity – and stabilizing the region in the face of the extremist challenge. This begins with addressing Iran and Syria.” Here he echoes NRO’s incisive analyst Michael Leeden, who has consistently and correctly highlighted the regional dimension of, in his words, “the war against the terror masters.” The coming months will determine whether this new focus on Tehran and Damascus is transformed into strategic advantage in the Middle East. To quote Ledeen, “Faster, please.”
– Joseph Morrison Skelly is an academic fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.
Nicholas J. Xenakis
The president’s speech last evening is the closest we’ve come to yet in answering the Iraq War’s most pressing question, “What is victory?” We might not have the when, but at least now we know the where (Baghdad) and the how (troop increase). In the Sept./Oct. issue of The National Interest, Gary Rosen called this plan “Baghdad or Bust,” arguing that as Baghdad goes so goes the rest of Iraq. The hope is that for Iraqis a stable capital city will be an important sign of a stable federal government, symbolizing that there is an order beyond the militias and sectarian violence. While at the same time for Americans, focusing on Baghdad provides a metric by which success can be measured, or at least narrows the parameters within which we can begin to decide what exactly that measurement might be. Combined with the rhetoric about this victory not looking like those of the past, both Iraqis and Americans are one step closer to determining a definite point where U.S. troops can begin to leave Iraq with confidence in its future.
The speech is also notable for what the president didn’t mention. Besides Iraq and America, the two countries with the biggest role to play in the future of the Iraqi people are Iran and Syria. The president had previously rejected the Iraq Study Group’s recommendation of opening diplomatic relations with these two countries and deliberately made a point of it in the speech by excluding Iran and Syria when listing the other nations that the U.S. would look to for cooperation. And while Iran and Syria were much more vital to plans focused on securing Iraq’s borders, both countries still have significant influence on the Iraqi population — including Baghdad’s. In the near future the most hotly contested question will be whether the president’s plan can succeed without these two key players. Additionally, the exclusion of Iran and Syria in the president’s diplomatic offensive is a statement that while Iraq didn’t turn out as envisioned, Bush is still committed to his larger grand strategy, specifically when it comes to only working with countries he sees as completely committed to the democratic cause. From this point of view, the speech can indeed be seen as an acknowledgement from the president that the arrival of the new Congress is indeed a referendum on the Iraq War, but that at the same time he does not see the new Democratic majority as a mandate to change what he’s doing in the rest of the world.
– Nicholas J. Xenakis is an assistant editor at The National Interest.