The Good News—Bush Finally Has a Plan
The bad news—it's an ill-defined muddle.
The most remarkable thing about the document President George W. Bush released today, titled National Strategy for Victory in Iraq, is that it was released today (and written not much earlier—it's authored by the National Security Council and dated November 2005).
It is symptomatic of everything that's gone wrong with this war that, after two and a half years of fighting it (and four years after starting to plan it), the White House is just now getting around to articulating a strategy for winning it.
To put this in perspective: From December 1941 to August 1945, the U.S. government mobilized an entire nation; manufactured a mighty arsenal; played a huge role in defeating the armies, air forces, and navies of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan; and emerged from battle poised to shape the destiny of half the globe. By comparison, from September 2001 to December 2005, the U.S. government has advanced to the point of describing a path to victory in a country the size of California.
Now, what about this path—the strategy for victory—and the speech that President Bush gave at the U.S. Naval Academy this morning to promote it?
The document and the speech are better than previous efforts. They're more detailed. They identify not just some ultimate ideal (defeat the terrorists or spread freedom throughout the world), but specific, achievable stages of success along the way. The speech even acknowledges that mistakes have been made—only tactical errors, involving the poorly wrought initial approaches to training Iraqi security forces, but still, publicly admitting any error is a first for this president. The NSC document goes still further and frankly specifies many of the "challenges"—political, military, and economic—yet to be overcome.
Had the president made this speech and issued this report a year or two ago, they would have been seen as hallmark statements; they might even have shaped the ensuing debate.
But the debate has now shifted—a result of the rising casualties in Iraq, the diminishing support for the war at home, and the growing demand for troop withdrawals from even once-hawkish quarters. Bush, in fact, gave the speech and ordered the report precisely to deal with this shift—and both must be deemed failures, because they don't really deal with it at all.
First, though the document is called a "strategy for victory," Bush doesn't clearly define either term. And even where he defines the terms nebulously or inconsistently, he doesn't tie them to the more pressing questions now consuming public discussion of the war: What do we do now? When can we start to pull out—under what circumstances, with what sorts of troops remaining, to what end, for how long?
In the speech, Bush says (as he has said many times before), "We will stay as long as necessary to complete the mission." But what is the mission? At one point he says, "When our mission of training the Iraqi security forces is complete, our troops will return home to a proud nation." However, a bit later, he says the mission will be complete "when the terrorists and Saddamists can no longer threaten Iraq's democracy," and he adds, "I will settle for nothing less than complete victory."
So, which is it: Our job is done when the Iraqis can fight the bad guys on their own—or when the bad guys are defeated? Those are two very different standards, involving very different benchmarks of progress.
As was widely reported ahead of time, Bush focused much of his speech on, as he put it, "the real progress" made this year in training Iraqi soldiers and police. Many observers—including this one—inferred from this that the speech would mark a prelude to (if not an announcement of) a substantial American troop withdrawal. After all, the president has said many times, "As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down." Here they are, suddenly standing up; therefore …
To the extent that President Bush explicitly addressed this point this morning—which, after all, is the central issue in the debate raging now—he sent (perhaps calculatedly) a mixed message.
On the one hand, he said (reprising his "stay the course" theme): "Pulling our troops out before they achieve their purpose is not a plan for victory. … America will not run in the face of car bombers and assassins, so long as I am your commander in chief. … We will not abandon Iraq." He acknowledged (as he has many times before): "This will take time—and patience. … There will be tough days ahead." Troop levels will be adjusted, up or down, by commanders' assessments of facts on the ground, "not by artificial timetables set by politicians in Washington."
On the other hand, he said that as the situation improves in Iraq, our mission will "shift from providing security and conducting operations against the enemy nationwide to conducting more specialized operations targeted at the most dangerous terrorists." Furthermore: "As the Iraqi forces gain experience and the political progress advances, we will be able to decrease our troop levels in Iraq without losing our capability to defeat the terrorists." [Italics added.]
Note the wording: We will reduce troop levels not necessarily as the Iraqi forces get measurably better, but as they "gain experience" and even as "political progress" is made.
From this, it's a good bet that we can expect a substantial troop withdrawal beginning shortly after the elections of a new Iraqi government in mid-December—that's one sign of "political progress"—or perhaps soon after the new government takes office in January.
The NSC report confirms this notion and elaborates: "We expect, but cannot guarantee, that our force posture will change over the next year, as the political process consolidates and Iraqi Security Forces grow and gain experience." U.S. troops will "increasingly move out of the cities, reduce the number of bases from which we operate, and conduct fewer patrols and convoy missions." The report also states: "While our military presence may become less visible, it will remain lethal and decisive, able to confront the enemy wherever it may organize."
These statements are consistent with Rep. John Murtha's proposal to "redeploy" U.S. troops to Kuwait or offshore. They're also consistent with Seymour Hersh's report in this week's New Yorker that the White House and the Pentagon are preparing to shift the war effort from ground combat to airstrikes.
They're consistent with quite a lot of ideas that might pop into people's heads, but what do they actually mean? Where is Bush going with these statements? What is he planning to do, when, and how?
Neither his speech nor the NSC's report addresses some basic facts about the war that must be faced in the formulation of a genuine strategy:
*The American occupation itself is strengthening, legitimizing, and radicalizing the insurgency. This fact—acknowledged by nearly everyone but the president—is what makes the issue of troop levels so complex: Our troops are, in one sense, fighting the insurgents and making Iraq more secure; but in another sense they're bolstering the insurgents and making Iraq less secure. The net effect—both of the continued occupation and of a withdrawal—is debatable, but the president will fail to engage the debate as long as he pretends the dilemma doesn't exist.
*The Iraqi security forces have no doubt improved in the past year, mainly because it's only been in the last year or so that realistic training measures have been put into effect, thanks mainly to Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, who has since been rotated out of the country. But how much they've improved, how effectively they might fight on their own as a national army, is not at all clear—especially given recent reports of death-squad tactics and the persistent growth of sectarian militias.
*The persistence of the war—long beyond the point when its planners thought it would be over—is straining the U.S. military to the breaking point, in terms of recruitment, morale, troop rotation, and the operations, maintenance, and procurement of its weapons systems. This is the main reason many military officers have called for getting out of Iraq—because "staying the course" for much longer is physically impossible. Steps can be taken to remedy this situation, but they would require momentous political decisions, and President Bush has done nothing to prepare the public for any such measures.
*Finally, the war in Iraq, even the war on terrorism (of which it has lately become a part, though it wasn't before Bush invaded), does not carry the same moral or strategic weight as the Cold War, much less World War II. In today's speech, Bush once again likened al-Qaida to Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. There is no question that al-Qaida and its allies constitute a potent menace, but they do not rule a massive landmass or control a mighty industrial army; they cannot launch a blitzkrieg across Europe (or any other continent).
Let's put it this way: If the war in Iraq truly were as serious as the wars against Nazism and Communism, then where is the military draft, where is the trillion-dollar defense budget, where are the steps to put the entire economy on war footing, where is the all-out effort to train thousands of officers and intelligence analysts in the relevant foreign languages? Bush cannot equate the war in Iraq with the 20th century's wars for Western civilization—and yet insist that it requires no sacrifice except from the brave members of our all-volunteer armed forces.
This is the bottom-line failure of President Bush's campaign to persuade the public: He has still not outlined just what this war is about, what winning it means, and what it would honestly take to do so.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of George Bush by Alex Wong/Getty Images.