The Urge to Surge

As official Washington breaks for the two-week Christmas-New Year’s hiatus, it knows that the number one issue it will face on its return in early January is the White House’s apparent "urge to surge" as many as 50,000 new troops into Iraq for up to two years in a last-ditch effort to claim what President George W. Bush insists on calling "victory."

The plan, which was presented to Bush last week in a meeting with five national defense specialists, two associates of the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), is designed to focus U.S. military efforts on providing "security" for average Iraqi citizens against both the Sunni insurgency and Shia militias that have, in the report’s words, made Baghdad the "center of gravity of this conflict."

Drafted hastily – it currently exists only as a Power Point presentation – by its two main authors, AEI fellow Frederick Kagan and the former vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army, Gen. Jack Keane, as an alternative to the bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG) headed by former Secretary of State James Baker, it is called "Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq."

The title apparently chosen deliberately to counter one of the ISG’s core messages: that there is "no magic bullet" – least of all a military one – that can save what most analysts here believe is the biggest U.S. foreign policy debacle since at least the Vietnam War.

"Alone among proposals for Iraq, the new Keane-Kagan strategy has a chance to succeed," declared this week’s Weekly Standard, which, like the AEI fellows involved in the "Victory" project, was a major champion for going to war in Iraq.

Indeed, the provenance of the plan – aside from Keane and two other senior retired military officers, a majority its 17 contributors are AEI fellows – has fed suspicions that it represents one final effort by neoconservatives to persuade the president that, by "doubling down" on his gamble on Iraq, he can still leave the table a winner and "transform" the entire Middle East.

While Bush has not explicitly endorsed the concept, he noted at his year-end White House press conference Wednesday that he was open to the idea. Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, which is closely tied to AEI, is known to support it strongly.

"According to all the talk in Washington, the ‘plan’ whipped up by AEI’s Fred Kagan is likely to be mostly implemented by President Bush when he stops stalling about his policy in Iraq," according to Pat Lang, the former chief Middle East analyst at the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, who has warned that, if implemented, it would likely lead to "Stalingrad on the Tigris."

"A ‘surge’ of the size possible under current constraints on U.S. forces will not turn the tide in the guerrilla war," warned Lang, who noted, along with many other experts in the past month, that the reinforcement of thousands of U.S. troops in Baghdad since last summer had actually increased the violence there.

"Those who believe still more troops will bring ‘victory’ are living in a dangerous dream world and need to wake up," he added, conceding, however, that it may appeal to Bush for that very reason. "He wants to redeem his ‘freedom agenda,’ restore momentum to his plans and in his mind this might ‘clear up’ Iraq so that he could move on to Iran."

Even if Bush supports the plan, however, his much-weakened political position in the wake of last month’s elections in which Democrats won control of both houses of Congress makes it highly unlikely that he could muster the kind of support – both among lawmakers and the uniformed military – he would need to deploy the number of troops the plans calls for.

While the current front-runner for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, John McCain, supports the plan – as does the Democrats’ most prominent neoconservative, Sen. Joseph Lieberman – some key Republicans, including Senator Gordon Smith and Norm Coleman who until now have strongly backed Bush’s Iraq policy, have come out in opposition.

They are certain to be bolstered by doubts expressed Sunday by former Secretary of State Colin Powell who, since his retirement two years ago, has been extremely reluctant to voice any criticism of Bush.

A former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell told CBS News that he was "not persuaded that another surge of troops into Baghdad for the purposes of suppressing this communitarian violence, this civil war, will work."

The current theater commanders, including the outgoing head of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. John Abizaid, and the senior officer in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, have also argued that more troops are likely to increase, rather than reduce, the violence.

Abizaid, an Arab-speaker with an advanced degree in Middle East studies from Harvard University, has all but explicitly endorsed the main recommendations of the ISG, particularly its emphasis on gaining the cooperation of all of Iraq’s neighbors in stabilizing the country.

The Joint Chiefs are also reportedly skeptical of the plan, with the Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, warning Congress earlier this month that, even at the current rate of deployment – not to mention increased troops levels, let alone those recommended by the "Victory" plan – "we will break the [Army’s] active component."

In addition to conveying their views directly to Bush’s new Pentagon chief Robert Gates, those same skeptics among the active-duty and retired military officers will almost certainly be among the first witnesses called to testify before key Congressional panels beginning next month as the newly-empowered Democrats take control of the legislative agenda for the first time in 12 years.

While the incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said last weekend that he could abide a modest increase in U.S. troop strength in Baghdad for a few months to see if they could reduce the violence, other key senators, including the front-runner for the party’s 2008 presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton, said this week she would not support even a short-term deployment. Meanwhile, the top Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives issued statements here Wednesday opposing any "surge."

Still, neoconservatives remain confident. "Because this plan offers a credible prospect of winning in Iraq," according to this week’s Standard, "moderate Democrats and queasy Republicans, the White House thinks, will be inclined to stand back and let Bush give it a shot."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.