Worse Than Staying the Course

The Democrats regaining control of both the House and Senate was seen by many as rejection of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy and a referendum for withdrawal. The announcement the next day of Donald Rumsfeld’s departure from the Pentagon and the nomination of former CIA director Robert Gates to be the new secretary of defense was viewed as acknowledgment of the failure of DoD’s military strategy in Iraq. And the much anticipated report by the Iraq Study Group (co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former congressman Lee Hamilton) is seen as a willingness to listen to wise men giving much needed good counsel and breaking the neocons’ influence over Iraq and foreign policy.

If it hasn’t already, the euphoria should be worn off. A Democratic-controlled Congress may be opposed to the Bush administration’s Iraq policy, but the reality is that the executive branch makes foreign policy and Congress does not have the authority to withdraw troops from Iraq. Rumsfeld may be on his way out, but Gates will still be obligated to implement President Bush’s Iraq policy, which is still the same. And no one should expect the Iraq Study Group to miraculously come up with the recipe for success in Iraq.

Just as invading Iraq was a product of wishful thinking, so is leaving. President Bush has been coy about any decisions on troop levels – on Monday he said, “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.” The military verdict is already in. According to a study commissioned by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Marine Corps General Peter Pace, the “Go Home” option of a quick withdrawal has been rejected by the military. This should come as no big surprise, as the military ethos is not generally predisposed to beating a retreat, which is synonymous with defeat. In fact, the military mindset is just the opposite: to believe that victory can be achieved despite the odds. As Bob Woodward wrote about Jay Garner – the retired three-star Army general who headed up the initial U.S. postwar Iraq reconstruction effort – in State of Denial: “He [Garner] had been given an impossible task but the military man’s can-do attitude prevailed over doubt. ‘I thought this was going to be superhard,’ he told me later. But, he added, ‘I never failed at anything.'”

If immediate withdrawal is off the table, that means choosing from one of the other two options in the Pentagon review. “Go Big” calls for a significant increase in U.S. troops to break the back of the insurgency and quell sectarian violence. This is actually the correct tactical military response, but would require a force of several hundred thousand troops deployed for years, not months, along with a willingness to use harsh and indiscriminate tactics. However, the price of tactical success would be strategic defeat. A large ground force in Iraq would be confirmation of infidel occupation of an Islamic country and a war against Islam, creating greater incentives for more Iraqis to join the ranks of the insurgency and more Muslims around the world to side with the radicals. At least it seems that the Pentagon has all but rejected this option after concluding that there aren’t enough troops.

The third – and presumably favored – option is “Go Long,” which would actually call for a temporary troop increase before reducing – but not completely withdrawing – U.S. forces as Iraqis are trained and take over security responsibilities. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it should: it’s simply a variation of President Bush’s “as Iraqis stand up, we will stand down” strategy and a different version of “stay the course.” In other words, it’s just more of the same that hasn’t worked.

The actual number of troops being talked about is 20,000, which is coincidentally the same number proposed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), even though he believes “that means expanding the Army and the Marine Corps.” And Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) believes that if more troops are needed for Iraq, “we can’t do that without a draft,” and plans to reintroduce a bill to reinstate the draft in January when the Democrats officially assume the reins of power on Capitol Hill. The reality is that there are more than enough troops in the Army and Marine Corps to increase the Iraq deployment by 20,000 or more soldiers. The problem isn’t increasing the force, but being able to sustain it afterwards. So the “Go Long” strategy hinges on swift success. But if 140,000 U.S. troops aren’t enough to stop the growing violence, it’s hard to see how 20,000 more are going to make a significant difference – either in increasing security or getting the Iraqis to assume greater responsibility for security.

The Iraq Study Group has yet to issue its recommendations, but the handwriting on the wall is that the last two years of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy will resemble getting a little bit pregnant. Trying to – as one defense official put it – “go big but short while transitioning to go long” is a double whammy of catastrophic proportions. The proposed troop increase is insufficient to mount a serious counterinsurgency military effort, but will give Iraqis more reason to chafe under the yoke of foreign occupation – thus fueling rather than dissipating the native insurgency – and lead Muslims everywhere to increase the call for jihad to expel the infidel. If “stay the course” was bad, this is much worse.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.