In his address to the nation on the war in Iraq on Thursday night, President Bush announced that the name of his new plan to replace the "New Way Forward" in Iraq would be "Return on Success." A more appropriate name might have been "More of the Same."
Despite all the talk about the success of the six-month surge and progress in pacifying parts of Iraq, the president actually offered no new plan at all. Instead, he presented what amounts to a holding action for an indefinite time, which would guarantee that his successor would have to engineer the endgame in Iraq.
This proposal seems designed to offer political cover for skittish Republicans who are worried that their constituents are growing increasingly frustrated with how the war is being conducted. Bush seemed to say that the United States would continue to move forward in Iraq while also bringing home troops.
But the real arithmetic of the plan offers little hope that significant numbers of troops will come home any time soon. Bush said that 5,700 would be home by Christmas, but that still would leave roughly 168,000 troops in Iraq, well over pre-surge levels.
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In reality, this is the minimum number of troops Bush could withdraw. Deployments are ending for those troops, and a stretched-thin army can't sustain that manpower level. So, in essence, this plan is designed to keep the maximum number of soldiers and Marines in place for as long as possible.
Even Iraq commander Army Gen. David Petraeus, who had the unenviable task of trying to convince Congress that the surge was a success, has proposed withdrawing five combat brigades by July. Bush did not refer to that proposal in his speech, and he offers no absolute assurance that he is committed to Petraeus' plan.
Petraeus is a skilled and honorable soldier. U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, who joined Petraeus in briefing Congress on the surge, also is an honorable man who has spent most of his career stationed in the Middle East and is a renowned Arabist.
But both have a stake in depicting the surge as a success. A variety of other assessments, including one by the non-partisan Government Accountability Office, have concluded that violence against civilians in Iraq has remained roughly the same as before the United States sent in 30,000 additional troops.
All reports acknowledge pockets of progress. For example, the willingness of some Sunnis to join with U.S. troops to expel radical members of al-Qaida in Iraq from their neighborhoods has been hailed as a positive development.
But that was happening before the surge, and there is no certainty it can be replicated elsewhere. And much of the "normal life" that Bush said is returning to parts of Iraq results from the continuing segregation of the society: Sunnis have succeeded in driving Shiites from their neighborhoods while Shiites have driven Sunnis from their neighborhoods.
The White House reported to Congress on Friday that only one of the 18 military and political goals established for the Iraqi government has been met. A State Department report issued the same day concluded that religious freedom in Iraq has sharply deteriorated over the past year.
With little or no progress to show after more than four years of war, Bush is left without a rationale for prolonging it, especially when it is costing the nation $10 billion a month. Our troops have served with bravery, skill and devotion. But it's clear that Iraq's current problems can't be solved by the U.S. military. Yet, Bush offers no new strategy, such as a diplomatic offensive involving the United Nations and the leaders of other Middle East states, as an option.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell's famous admonition is, "If you break it, you own it." But the United States no longer has the capacity to "fix" Iraq. American troops are mired in a bloody civil war sparked, in large part, by the ineptitude of this administration in carrying out the war.
It is time to put Iraqi leaders on notice that the U.S. presence in Iraq is not open-ended, that the withdrawal of troops will begin immediately and follow a set timetable. Meanwhile, they should be told that the primary mission of U.S. troops will shift to training Iraq's military and police, protecting U.S. assets and fighting terrorists.
It is doubtful that congressional opponents of the war have enough votes to legislate an immediate end to the war. Bush would veto any such bill.
But enough bipartisan support may exist to demand a change in strategy and the institution of new rotation policies that give troops more time at home and out of harm's way. At the least, Congress should do what it can to make troops as safe as possible until they can come home.
A war-weary and disillusioned public should demand it.
Multiple reports dispute claims that Bush's surge has produced progress in war-torn Iraq.
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