Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Here's what Bush will do about Iraq

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Speaking in Indonesia yesterday, President Bush said this: "I haven't made any decisions about troop increases or troop decreases, and won't until I hear from a variety of sources, including our own United States military. They will be bringing forth the suggestions and recommendations to me here as quickly as possible."

He's playing dumb. The "variety of sources" is likely only two key sources: the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group set up by Congress and the secret Pentagon study set up by JCS Chairman Gen. Peter Pace. Which source will prevail? And then, which option will prevail?

Bush has met with the ISG, and reports suggest that its recommendations will emphasize multi-pronged compromise. As Steve Clemons put it, the ISG will likely "call for a new, expansive commitment to regional deal-making to solve many of the unresolved problems in the Middle East and to try and create a new equilibrium of interests in the region".

NPR outlines the likely recommendations in greater detail here. The ISG will likely not "endorse an immediate withdrawal from Iraq". There are various options, including a troop increase and phased withdrawal, but Baker has indicated that there is some middle ground between "cutting and running" (which Democrats have not proposed despite Republican slurs to the contrary) and "staying the course" (which has been Bush's strategy despite his mendacious denials). The ISG will likely also emphasize the responsibility of the Iraqi government and the need for reconstruction. It may also recommend opening up discussions on the future of Iraq with Iran and Syria.

According to The Washington Post, the Pentagon study "has outlined three basic options: Send in more troops ['Go Big'], shrink the force but stay longer ['Go Long'], or pull out ['Go Home']." "Go Big" is out: "That option has been all but rejected by the study group, which concluded that there are not enough troops in the U.S. military and not enough effective Iraqi forces." "Go Home" is also out: "It was rejected by the Pentagon group as likely to push Iraq directly into a full-blown and bloody civil war." Which leaves "Go Long":

The group has devised a hybrid plan that combines part of the first option with the second one -- "Go Long" -- and calls for cutting the U.S. combat presence in favor of a long-term expansion of the training and advisory efforts. Under this mixture of options, which is gaining favor inside the military, the U.S. presence in Iraq, currently about 140,000 troops, would be boosted by 20,000 to 30,000 for a short period...

The purpose of the temporary but notable increase, they said, would be twofold: To do as much as possible to curtail sectarian violence, and also to signal to the Iraqi government and public that the shift to a "Go Long" option that aims to eventually cut the U.S. presence is not a disguised form of withdrawal.

It has been suggested that the ISG would provide Bush with bipartisan political cover as he shifted course in the direction of withdrawal without appearing to give in to Democratic opposition, that, in essence, long-time Bush Family saviour James Baker would rescue Bush from the quagmire of his own making in Iraq. But Bush recently launched a new "sweeping internal review of Iraq policy" that "parallels the effort by the [ISG] to salvage U.S. policy in Iraq," in the words of the Post, and the existence of such a review, which "will knit together separate efforts that have been underway at the State Department and the Pentagon over the past six weeks," suggests that Bush is now trying to undercut, if not negate, the ISG's work. It wasn't so long ago that Baker appeared to be the shadow Secretary of State on a historic mission to extract the U.S. from Iraq with its dignity, and Bush's, intact. Now he just appears to be yet one more participant in the discussion, yet one more competing voice in the overall policy debate. And given how badly the Republicans did in the midterms, the unpopularity among conservatives of discussions with Iran and Syria, and Bush's reluctance even to appear to give in to the Democrats, Bush may be unlikely to accept what are likely to be the ISG's moderate recommendations. Given his recent comments in Vietnam, likening Iraq to Vietnam and declaring with astonishing historical ignorance that the U.S. will succeed in Iraq unless it quits, he now seems to be taking a more hard-line approach. It's all about winning now, not compromise and dignity.

Which makes the Pentagon's hybrid "Go Long" plan seem like a real possibility. There are surely other viable plans out there, and the "internal review" may churn out other viable possibilities, but the "Go Long" plan, or some variation of it, could turn out to be Bush's preference. Remember, after all, that he has listened to the Pentagon in the past. Rumsfeld may be on his way out, but a Pentagon-driven (and military-oriented) plan is likely to be far more popular with Cheney and other high-ranking officials than a "realist" bipartisan plan from Baker and Hamilton. And there will soon be a new Secretary of Defense -- Robert Gates, perhaps? -- to sell whatever the Pentagon proposes, both internally and externally.

The "Go Long" plan is not without its risks, however. A troop increase could be highly unpopular both in the U.S. and in Iraq, and the U.S. could look as if it's ultimately giving up on Iraq. Democrats would criticize it, and so could those Iraqis who see it unfavourably as withdrawal in disguise. And it's not at all clear that the American people would support either an initial troop increase or a long-term military commitment. They have little patience left, and they registered their discontent vehemently at the polls. Still, Bush has the luxury of two years in office without having to face the voters again, and he may now be in a position to consider such a long-term plan, particularly if he can point to the eventual withdrawal of large numbers of U.S. troops.

This is not to say that Bush will ignore the ISG entirely, nor that the Pentagon study will ultimately prevail. But the "Go Long" plan makes sense as a viable option for Bush, and some variation of it may soon become the new "stay the course" in Iraq.

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