Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Same old, same old


A steady stream of leaks means there were few surprises in Bush's speech on Iraq, but let's go through it anyway.

First, two reference links: The speech, and the fact sheet.

Bush starts out by acknowledging the obvious: 2006 was a disaster. He says any mistakes are his, and that it's clear a change is needed. All good words, but it's disheartening that Bush was months behind the rest of the country in recognizing the downward spiral in Iraq.

He then asserts that "failure in Iraq would be a disaster." In the fact sheet, the phrasing is even starker: "The war on terror cannot be won if we fail in Iraq." Those are scare words, and simply not true. Iraq is hurting our cause, not helping it. But let's address Bush's specific arguments.

Radical Islamic extremists would grow in strength and gain new recruits and oil revenue from a "safe haven" in Iraq. Nope. Our presence in Iraq has itself greatly increased extremist recruiting and helped inflame an entire region; I doubt our leaving could boost it much more. Plus, Iraq would not become a "safe haven" for terrorists. The Shiite majority has no use for the Sunni fundamentalists in Al-Qaeda. Nor do the Kurds. Nor do most of the Sunni clans, who resent foreign interference as well as the attempts to provoke a sectarian war against the numerically superior Shiites. If we leave, the insurgency loses most of its momentum and al-Qaeda loses most of its support.

Iran would be emboldened to pursue nuclear weapons. Perhaps. But they're pretty darned emboldened now, and one reason is because we have our hands full in Iraq. Leaving Iraq would give us a lot more options for dealing with Iran.

That's it; that's what he says to support the "cannot be won if we fail in Iraq" claim.

Next he turns to solutions. First, secure Baghdad. He correctly notes that most of the sectarian violence occurs in the ethnically mixed areas in and around the capital. He also correctly notes that all previous attempts to secure Baghdad failed because we didn't have enough troops.

Again, totally unsurprising -- and totally disheartening that Bush has only now come to that conclusion, three years (and at least three "retake Baghdad" attempts) after invading.

He claims the new pacification plan will work. Here it is. Iraqi army and police units will spread out across Baghdad and do most of the heavy lifting. American troops -- five brigades worth -- will back them up. This, supposedly, will finally give us enough troops to clear and hold neighborhoods.

Except that these are the same Iraqi troops that didn't do much in previous efforts, and the same Iraqi police that are riven with sectarian divisions, as well as being underequipped and ill-trained to engage in urban combat. And again, "clear and hold" has been the policy for a long time. Bush is admitting that for months he has been pursuing a strategy that was doomed to fail because there weren't enough troops to make it work. If there weren't enough troops, why was he pursuing such a strategy?

On Sunday, George Will made the point that, Bush's blithe assertions aside, even with the additional troops we still won't have enough forces. He quotes Wayne White, a long-time State Department official, who calls Baghdad "a Shiite-Sunni Stalingrad."

Based on experience in the Balkans, an assumption among experts is that to maintain order in a context of sectarian strife requires one competent soldier or police officer for every 50 people. For the Baghdad metropolitan area (population: 6.5 million), that means 130,000 security personnel. There are 120,000 now, but 66,000 of them are Iraqi police, many — perhaps most — of whom are worse than incompetent.

Because their allegiances are to sectarian factions, they are not responsive to legitimate central authority. They are part of the problem. Therefore even a substantial surge of, say, 30,000 U.S. forces would leave Baghdad that many short, and could be a recipe for protracting failure.

Bush claims that political interference -- read, opposition from the U.S.-supported central government -- hamstrung previous pacification efforts, but this time the Iraqis have pledged to be cooperative. Good as far as it goes -- but the fact that such a pledge is needed speaks volumes about the likelihood of success this time around.

Bush also told Prime Minister Maliki that the American committment is not open-ended, and mentioned the benchmarks he has established for the Iraqi government to show it can become self-reliant. He said Iraq will take over all security responsibilities by November, reform the oil-revenue laws, hold provincial elections, allow Baathists back into government and spend $10 billion on reconstruction.

All good, but mostly surface. The benchmarks are not particularly demanding. "Security responsibilities" is a paper handoff; U.S. troops will still be heavily involved. Elections mean little as far as security. The revenue sharing and deBaathification are solid, addressing two major Sunni grievances.

The $10 billion is kind of remarkable, considering that Iraq's entire federal budget is only $65 billion. The link, by the way, also raises another question about Iraq's ability to achieve self-reliance, because that federal budget is larger than its GDP ($47 billion), and includes a $16 billion annual deficit.

Bush didn't mention a reported pledge of $1 billion in U.S. money. Which is just as well; $1 billion would sound more impressive if his 2007 budget hadn't cut Iraq reconstruction aid from about $10 billion a year to zero.

Let's see, what else: increased training of Iraqi forces? Good, as long as we're not just training and arming militia members. Better coordination of reconstruction efforts? Good, but minor. Increase forces in Anbar province by 4,000 troops? Good, I guess, but probably too few to make a serious difference, and since those troops will simply be reshuffled from elsewhere in Iraq it means the game of whack-a-mole continues.

Intriguingly, he then refers to "interrupting the flow of support from Iran and Syria" -- but gives no details. I'm curious what he means by that. He can't mean diplomacy, because he has ruled out talks with those two. And we don't have enough troops to seal the border. Does he mean cross-border strikes? Aggressive interdiction? That should be a focus of questioning from the press.

He then closes with stirring rhetoric.

The fact sheet fleshes out some details -- a demobilization program for militias, increasing the size of Iraqi security forces, reforming the Interior Ministry -- but little else.

So what's new? Not much. I have to agree with several other observers, including the WaPo's Don Froomkin and conservative blogger AllahPundit: His grand new strategy is just more of the same. Another conservative blogger, Jay Reding, provides some more analysis, but even he was underwhelmed.

We are in trouble.

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5 Comments:

Blogger Not Your Mama said...

Well, it's a done deal so the only thing left is to sit back and hope I'm wrong and everything will come together.

I was particularly troubled by "we will increase the embedding of American advisers in Iraqi Army units – and partner a Coalition brigade with every Iraqi Army division."

With only 21,000 additional troops that is the only realistic strategy but my doubts center on the Iraqi Army. Partisan feelings run deep and I wonder how much danger there will be to our troops coming from the Iraqi military itself?

I'm smelling a trap and again, I hope I'm wrong.

1/11/2007 5:50 AM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Bush is going to be able to have his surge, so we're going to be in the position of hoping for the best while having grave doubts. But given that this is the best Bush can come up with as far as a "new" strategy, this is his last chance. Give him to the end of 2007, max. If things don't improve, we leave.

1/11/2007 10:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why am I not surprised you guys didn't like the speech or it's content???

JP5

1/11/2007 11:03 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

JP5: That comment isn't debate; it's empty partisan sniping.

1/12/2007 11:49 AM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Heck, even Peggy Noonan thought the speech stank. And she quotes other conservatives and Republicans saying the same thing.

1/12/2007 12:28 PM  

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