Wednesday, December 13, 2006

A lost war: Pentagon planning and President Bush's final push for victory in Iraq

By Michael J.W. Stickings

The Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group has gotten most of the attention as Bush and his warmongers prepare some newfangled course of action that is now likely to revealed in the new year, but the truth is that the president is much more likely to listen to the Pentagon than to the family consigliere.

As I suggested a few weeks ago -- see here -- Bush seems to be taking a more hard-line approach than his critics, and the overwhelming majority of the American people, would like. He seems intent on giving it one last go, one final push, whatever it takes to "win" the disastrous war that he started over three and a half years ago and that has turned not just into a quagmire with no apparent positive outcome but into one of the worst military blunders -- indeed, one of the worst blunders generally, one of the worst foreign policy decisions -- in American history. He is not looking for a way out but for a way to stay in and "win," whatever that even means now. The ISG and its realist recommendations, however unclear some of them might be, offered him a way out with dignity but also with compromise. But this president loathes compromise, particularly when he is fighting for his very beliefs. For whatever the reality on the ground in Iraq, Bush believes in his war. His belief is fantasy, but he will stick with it. And even if cracks appear in his belief, in his faith, his stubbornness will keep him from pulling back.

And so it is not to the ISG that he will turn but to the Pentagon, the new Pentagon of Robert Gates. It seemed that a hybrid "Go Long" plan involving a short-term troop increase to combat the sectarian violence and a longer-term commitment to the training of Iraqi forces and a gradual withdrawal of the bulk of U.S. forces was percolating through the Pentagon and emerging as the preferred option, and now it seems that that plan, or some variation of it, will be precisely what the Pentagon recommends to Bush:

As President Bush weighs new policy options for Iraq, strong support has coalesced in the Pentagon behind a military plan to "double down" in the country with a substantial buildup in American troops, an increase in industrial aid and a major combat offensive against Muqtada Sadr, the radical Shiite leader impeding development of the Iraqi government.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff will present their assessment and recommendations to Bush at the Pentagon today. Military officials, including some advising the chiefs, have argued that an intensified effort may be the only way to get the counterinsurgency strategy right and provide a chance for victory...

Such an option would appear to satisfy Bush's demand for a strategy focused on victory rather than disengagement. It would disregard key recommendations and warnings of the Iraq Study Group, however, and provide little comfort for those fearful of a long, open-ended U.S. commitment in the country.

Whatever else might be said of Bush, he has been consistent in his delusion and in his focus on winning. This plan may or may not work, although it is not clear how success would be measured. I have more confidence in it than in the plans that came out of the Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz-Feith Pentagon only because more thought, more military thought, seems to have gone into it. But if success is measured as victory according to Bush, I suspect that even this thoughtfully crafted plan will fail. Rather than turn Iraq in the right direction, and so enable a dignified U.S. withdrawal and at least the spin of success, it will only put off the inevitable, which is an intense sectarian power struggle in a post-U.S. Iraq that could take decades to sort out.

Bush, I predict, will go with this Pentagon plan because it seems, to him and to those who think like him, less defeatist than the more complex set of recommendations presented by the ISG. But there will be no victory. The Iraq War -- Bush's war -- has already been lost.

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