Sorry, Mr. President, you're all out of troops.

Military analysis.
Aug. 29 2007 6:31 PM

Sorry, Mr. President, You're All Out of Troops

But maybe France can help solve the Iraq mess.

George Bush at the VFW. Click image to expand.
President George W. Bush 

President George W. Bush's behavior gets more baffling every day. Most leaders in his predicament would be recalibrating their rhetoric, seeking to alter expectations, so that the inevitable drawdown of U.S. troops from Iraq won't appear to be a defeat.

Instead, Bush is doing the opposite. Twice this past week, he has appeared before his most bedrock base (the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars), promised to give his commanders whatever they need for victory, and lambasted Congress for so much as contemplating withdrawal, a step, he warned, that would imperil civilization and free peoples everywhere.

He is willfully ignoring two facts. First, almost nobody in a position of power or much influence is advocating a complete withdrawal from Iraq. Second, a partial withdrawal is certain to take place in the next nine months, and this has nothing to do with Congress.

This has been noted time and time again, but apparently it bears repeating: The U.S. Army and Marines are simply running out of combat troops.

Adm. Michael Mullen, the incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified at his confirmation hearings last month that the "surge" in Iraq could not be sustained at present levels past April 2008.

There are a few ways to remedy this shortfall, all of them impractical or infeasible. First, soldiers' tours of duty in Iraq, which were recently extended from 12 months to 15 months, could be stretched further to 18 months. However, Gen. Richard Cody, the Army's vice chief of staff, told me, during a recent interview for a separate story, that this idea is "off the table." As it should be: The relentless rotation cycles have already compelled many soldiers and junior officers to quit the Army; pushing duty and tolerance much further might not just exhaust the troops beyond limits but spark an exodus from the armed forces.

Gen. Cody said his personal preference is the "full mobilization" of the Reserves. A president does have the statutory authority to call up to a million reservists, including retirees, into active service for the duration of a war or an emergency. But this step hasn't been taken since World War II, and for good reason: It would be a huge social disruption; and, unless a president persuades the population that it's necessary—unless the war is almost universally seen as vital to the nation's security—the call up would have politically explosive consequences as well. (Lyndon Johnson expanded the draft rather than fully mobilize the Reserves during the Vietnam War.) There is no sign that Bush is preparing the public for such a dramatic step now.

Another option would be to persuade other countries to send more troops, but those that aren't long gone are in the process of leaving. Finally, there's the draft, which just isn't going to happen and, in any case, it would take well over a year to call up, train, equip, and deploy fresh brigades for combat.

The long and short of it is that by next spring some of the 20 U.S. combat brigades currently in Iraq—perhaps as many as a quarter to a half of them—will be pulling out, and nobody will replace them. This is a mathematical fact, quite apart from anything to do with the upcoming election or the war's diminishing popularity.

Whether or not you regard this fact as lamentable, President Bush only makes things worse by howling that any pullback would erode American power and embolden the terrorists. Even if his warning is true, for a president to state it so urgently, over and over and over and over, deepens the damage when the storm hits. And given that the storm is certain to hit, it's irresponsible—it's baffling—that he's howling so loudly.

Most presidents would be doing two things right now: adjusting the rhetoric (so that expectations meet reality) and changing the policy (so that the reality isn't disastrous for U.S. interests).

One problem with Bush, judging from his Aug. 28 speech at an American Legion convention, is that he doesn't seem to grasp the reality. He told the Legionnaires:

The challenge in Iraq comes down to this: Either the forces of extremism succeed, or the forces of freedom succeed. Either our enemies advance their interests in Iraq, or we advance our interests. The most important and immediate way to counter the ambitions of al-Qaida and Iran and other forces of instability and terror is to win the fight in Iraq.

Even by his standards, this is a startlingly misguided passage. Few serious analysts would disagree that the best we can hope for in Iraq is a moderately authoritarian government that's not too terribly sectarian and not too closely aligned with Iran—that is to say, a regime that is neither extremist nor, in any Western sense, free. It would be a huge relief if "our enemies" don't see their interests advanced very far in Iraq, but few at this point anticipate U.S. interests making much headway either. It is unlikely that we or the Iraqi leaders will be able to ward off ambitions of al-Qaida and Iran and "other forces of instability and terror." At least one of those groups will come out fairly well; the key task now is to make sure that the most dangerous of them do not. And it is still unclear, after all this time, how Bush defines "win."

At one point in his speech, he came close to defining the term, but by that measure, we're not doing well. The "central objective" of his strategy in Iraq, he said, is "to aid the rise of an Iraqi government that can protect its people, deliver basic services, and be an ally in this war on terror."

The Iraqi people do not feel more protected (or, to the extent they do in certain areas, for instance in Anbar province, the relief has nothing to do with the Iraqi government). Basic services—clean water and electricity—are more lacking than they were a few months ago. And, even if the Baghdad regime gets its act together, it is unlikely to get confrontational with, say, Iran or Hezbollah.

It has always been doubtful that the U.S. military could pull off all these objectives. With the inevitable drawdown of troops, the chances are dimmer still. It's long past time to stop declaring lofty, unachievable goals and to focus on what's feasible.

Two military goals are feasible and worthwhile: defeating, or at least severely weakening, al-Qaida in Mesopotamia (with the assistance, however opportunistic, of Sunni tribesmen and insurgents); and keeping the Kurdish territories stable.

All other goals—for instance, keeping the Sunni-Shiite civil war from escalating or from expanding beyond Iraq's borders—are chiefly political in nature and can be accomplished only with the cooperation of neighboring countries.

Given America's declining influence and prestige in the region, it might be best for any accord or agreement to be—at least for public consumption—clean of Washington's fingerprints. And here, strangely, is where France might jump in.

According to a fascinating story by Adam Gopnik in the Aug. 27 issue of The New Yorker, when the new French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, met Condoleezza Rice, she said, "What can I do for you?" Sarkozy replied, "Improve your image in the world. It's difficult when the country that is the most powerful, the most successful—that is, of necessity, the leader of our side—is one of the most unpopular countries in the world. It presents overwhelming problems for you and overwhelming problems for your allies."

One interesting aspect of this story is Sarkozy's view of the United States as "the leader of our side." (Jacques Chirac would never have uttered such an admission.) Gopnik disputed the widespread notion that Sarkozy is "pro-American." He has an American style and a more American disposition to free markets. But he is very French in his view of an independent Europe and of his own nation's central position in that entity, in the promotion of Western civilization generally.

Still, in a recent address on foreign policy, Sarkozy expressed concerns that aren't far out of line with some of Bush's (and other Americans') concerns—about Iran's nuclear ambitions, Russia's growing insularity, and the regional cataclysms that might erupt from the violence in Iraq (even while he called for a U.S. pullout).

Bush—or whoever succeeds him—should embrace Sarkozy's ambitions and ally them to ours. His socialist foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, recently asked Condoleezza Rice, "What can we do for you in Iraq?" The answer should be: Take the lead in mediating a deal with Iraq's neighbors, and put non-American fingerprints on a containment, even a settlement, of the war.