Bush offers the only serious plan for Iraq -- but it carries flaws
If the Democrats don't like the U.S. policy on Iraq over the next six months, they have themselves partly to blame. There were millions of disaffected Republicans and independents ready to coalesce around some alternative way forward, but the Dem...
If the Democrats don't like the U.S. policy on Iraq over the next six months, they have themselves partly to blame. There were millions of disaffected Republicans and independents ready to coalesce around some alternative way forward, but the Democrats never came up with anything remotely serious.
The liberals who favor quick exit never grappled with the consequences of that policy, which the Baker-Hamilton commission terrifyingly described. The centrists who believe in gradual withdrawal never explained why that wouldn't be like pulling a tooth slowly. Sen. Joe Biden, who has the most intellectually serious framework for dealing with Iraq, was busy Wednesday, at the crucial decision-making moment, conducting preliminary fact-finding hearings, complete with forays into Iraqi history.
The Democrats have been fecund with criticisms of the war, but when it comes to alternative proposals, a common approach is social Darwinism on stilts: We failed them; now they're on their own.
So we are stuck with the Bush proposal as the only serious plan on offer. The question is, what exactly did President Bush propose Wednesday night? The policy rollout has been befogged by so much spin and misdirection it's nearly impossible to figure out what the president is proposing.
Nonetheless, here's my reconstruction of how this policy evolved:
On Nov. 30, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki presented Bush with a new security plan for Baghdad. It called for U.S. troops to move out of Baghdad to the periphery, where they would chase down Sunni terrorists. Iraqi Shiite and Kurdish troops, meanwhile, would flood into the city to establish order, at least as they define it.
Al-Maliki essentially wanted Americans protecting his flank but out of his hair. He didn't want U.S. soldiers embedded with his own. He didn't want American generals hovering over his shoulder. His government didn't want any restraints on Shiite might.
Over the next weeks, Bush rejected the plan and opted for the opposite approach. Instead of handing counterinsurgency over to the Iraqis and Shiites, he decided to throw roughly 20,000 U.S. troops -- everything he had available -- into Baghdad. He and his advisers negotiated new rules of engagement to make it easier to go after Shiites as well as Sunnis. He selected two aggressive counterinsurgency commanders, David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno, to lead the effort. Odierno recently told John Burns of The New York Times that U.S. forces would remain in cleared areas of Baghdad "24/7," suggesting a heavy U.S. presence.
Then came the job of selling the plan. The administration could not go before the world and say that the president had decided to overrule the sovereign nation of Iraq. Officials could not tell wavering Republicans that the president was proposing a heavy, U.S.-led approach.
Thus, administration officials are saying that they have adopted the al-Maliki plan, just with a few minor tweaks. In briefings and in the president's speech, officials claimed that this was an Iraqi-designed plan, that Iraqi troops would take on all the primary roles in clearing and holding neighborhoods, that Iraqis in mixed neighborhoods would scarcely see any additional Americans.
All of this is designed to soothe the wounded pride of the al-Maliki government, and to make the U.S. offensive seem less arduous at home. It's the opposite of the truth.
Wednesday, administration officials were praising al-Maliki lavishly. He wants the same things we want, they claimed. He has resolved to lead a nonsectarian government. He is reworking his governing coalitions and marginalizing the extremists. "We've seen the nascent rise of a moderate political bloc," one senior administration official said Wednesday.
But the selling of the plan illustrates that this is not the whole story. The Iraqi government wants a unified non-sectarian solution in high-minded statements and in some distant, ideal world. But in the short term, and in the deepest reptilian folds of their brains, the Shiites are maneuvering amid the sectarian bloodbath all around.
This is not a function of the character of al-Maliki or this or that official. It's a function of the core dynamic now afflicting Iraqi society.
The enemy in Iraq is not some discrete group of killers. It's the maelstrom of violence and hatred that infects every institution, including the government and the military. Instead of facing up to this core reality, the Bush administration has papered it over with salesmanship and spin.
David Brooks is a columnist for the New York Times.