Let’s consider the coming escalation of the war in Iraq. Most reports from inside that strange Green Zone known as the Beltway suggest that President Bush, having heard the electorate’s verdict last November and having reviewed the many recommendations of the Baker commission he appointed, is going to ignore them all — and instead send 20,000 to 40,000 more American troops to Iraq. This escalation has been officially dubbed “the surge,” since that noun implies a comforting temporary quality to the escalation, like a wave that will wash forward only to roll back at some near-future date.
During the long months of 2004 and 2005, as the situation in Iraq deteriorated and the Bush team tried to keep up appearances, the White House brushed aside all suggestions that we might need to reinforce our contingent in Iraq. Before the invasion, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld essentially cashiered General Eric Shinseki for daring to suggest that the occupation would require twice as many troops as the SecDef was deploying. Having brought the military brass to heel, the White House then insisted that, in not bolstering the Iraq force, it was only doing exactly what the generals wanted! Responsibility-shirking kabuki has rarely been performed with such bravura skill.
Still, today I think most Americans outside the Beltway understand what’s happened: When additional troops might have made a difference, Bush wouldn’t supply them. Now, when the generals are saying we can’t possibly support an escalated commitment, Bush is saying, send in the surge!
My first impulse here is to tear my hair out. My second is to think back to Richard Nixon’s ill-fated invasion of Cambodia — a similar “double-down” gamble late in a losing war, in a vain effort to “change the dynamic” and “get at the root of the problem.” No “surge” in Iraq is likely to have any more long-term value than Nixon’s folly. But like that antecedent — which destabilized Cambodia’s government, opening the door to the Khmer Rouge and its genocidal horrors — this escalation is quite likely to cause havoc in ways we can’t even imagine today.
Today’s Wall Street Journal details one likely area of collateral damage from a surge: Some Pentagon leaders seem to feel that it could “break the force,” pushing the overstretched U.S. military to the snapping point. The only way to make the “surge” happen is, essentially, to borrow against the future — to deploy forces now that might have been the replacements for U.S. forces in Iraq a year or two in the future. Field them today and there’s less for tomorrow. (If this carries echoes of the Bush administration’s “Cut taxes now, make our kids pay” economic policy, well, what a surprise!)
Senior military commanders believe the extra forces can be sustained in Iraq for only six to 12 months before logistical and manpower strains become untenable. Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army’s chief of staff, has told associates that 12 months is needed to ensure a substantive effect.
Echoing Gen. Schoomaker’s concerns that Iraq’s militias would simply wait out a three- or six-month surge and then resume their violence, a report by military historian Frederick Kagan argues that the troops should be in Iraq for at least 18 months. The U.S. has about 140,000 troops in Iraq, and the additional forces could total as many as 20,000.
It’s hard to know what’s more ludicrous: the idea that boosting U.S. forces by roughly 15 percent could change the hopeless dynamic in Iraq at this late date; the desperation of the Bush administration’s ever-deeper retreat from reality; or the pretzel-logic calculations necessary to dress up the “surge” in the trappings of a reasonable policy: “Well, men, we can only keep the extra troops for 6 to 12 months, but we need them for 12 to 18 months, so I guess it’s a one-year deployment, and cross your fingers that the job gets done!”
But what job, exactly? Tame the Shiite militias? That would mean dismantling the democratically elected government of Iraq, which just happens to be led by a die-hard partisan of one side in an increasingly murderous civil war. “Restore order”? How, exactly?
The time is long past when we might rationally expect to achieve any goal in Iraq other than getting our troops out safely. Even that is looking less certain. Today, we’re throwing more troops at the problem without defining the problem. What is the mission of the “surge” reinforcements? Is there a “success condition”? And when, a year from now — just as the Bush administration today is admitting that last year’s war plan was a bust — we admit that the “surge” was a failure, how do we scale back? Is it even possible, given the chaos in Iraq today, for U.S. forces to accomplish a gradual, orderly withdrawal? When we’re down to the last brigade, how do we stop the retreat from turning into a rout?
These are the sorts of questions the Bush administration ought to be asking itself today, and trying to answer now. If it waits to ask them till a year from now, it will end up with even more blood on its hands.
[tags]bush administration, iraq, surge[/tags]
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