We're hours away from President Bush's announced address to the nation, in which he'll outline his new strategy for our ongoing war in Iraq. According to media reports filling the television, print media, web and radio since the address was announced, Bush's strategy most likely centers around what everyone is calling a "surge" in troop levels. The general idea, for proponents of the "surge" proposal, is that an infusion of additional troops is the only way to stem the escalating Iraqi violence, and create the security necessary for the political machine in Iraq to do its job. Many surge supporters have felt from the beginning that we never had enough troops in Iraq to do the proscribed job -- that Rumsfeld's ideas about a lean, surgical military were really just an excuse for doing Iraq "on the cheap." President Bush, based upon his recent declaration that he wants to increase the size of the standing army, and his apparent embracing of the surge idea (both a direct repudiation of the plans and policies of his former Secretary of Defense), seems to agree with that assessment.
There are four principal reasons why surge is the wrong strategy. The first is the erroneous idea that a "surge" is even what we're planning. "Surge" implies that the additional deployment will be short term; that more troops will be dropped into Iraq to quickly pacify the situation, and then will be pulled out and troop levels will return to what they were. This is unlikely. We've been attempting surge strategy throughout Iraq since the war began -- Falujah is an excellent example. When Falujah appeared to be the center of Iraq's trouble, we "surged" the troops in that area dramatically, pacifying (read: destroying) that city. It remained pacified ... until we returned to regular troop levels (so that we could "surge" elsewhere). Once the extra firepower left, Falujah returned to being one of the most violent, dangerous places in Iraq (now without so much cumbersome architecture). The same thing can be seen daily as our troops patrol the worst Baghdad neighborhoods. When we are there, the sectarian fighting stops (or, just as likely, the guns are pointed at us); when we leave, the sectarian fighting resumes. What the strategists are really talking about when they say "surge" is an escalation: putting more boots on the ground to stem the violence, and keeping them there to hold reclaimed areas (which is precisely what we have not been doing) for the medium or long-term. Now, "escalation" is a Vietnam-era term which leaves a bad taste in the mouths of every American who remembers or has studied that war, and the politicos promoting "surge" know better than to further link Iraq with Vietnam, so they refer to a "surge" -- a much more palatable term, with mostly positive connotations and no historical baggage. But, make no mistake: when Bush says "surge," he means "escalation."
The second and third reasons escalation is the wrong path are closely tied. As much as the neocons do not want to admit it, our simple presence in Iraq exacerbates any internal Iraqi strife (civil war, sectarian violence -- whatever you want to call it). Iraq is an extremely nationalistic and tribalistic nation. Whatever the differences between the Iraqi peoples, nearly all of them can agree that they despise the idea of foreign occupation. Also, because of the Iraqi society's close-knit clan-based social structure, every Iraqi "insurgent" we kill initiates violent retribution from that person's family or clan, even from those who would not have otherwise been inclined to violence. A clan's honor is damaged until it has exacted retribution from those who have wronged the clan (you can visit Professor Juan Cole's blog for more on this). Because of the societal structure of Iraq, every additional troop we insert actually inflames the anti-occupation insurgency. In short, the second reason surge is wrong is that our very presence is part of the problem. The third reason follows closely -- we do not have enough reserve troops and equipment in our current armed forces to overwhelm the calculus of anti-occupation nationalism and clan pride. Military analysts who favor the idea of escalation almost universally agree that, given the population and physical size of Iraq, we'd need to drop at least 40,000 to 50,000 additional troops in Iraq for twelve to eighteen months just to make a dent in the violence. Some say we need to double our troop strength (an additional 140,000, give or take) to make any significant difference. But, everyone agrees, we are unlikely to be able to pull together even that lowest estimate of 40,000 -- 20,000 to 30,000 additional troops is likely the limit of what our existing military can provide. Those few additional troops are unlikely to have any lasting effect -- all we would be doing is sending more young Americans off to die, while killing more Iraqis in the process. If our "surge" is not large enough to have a real impact on the violence, we are simply flushing more human lives (American and Iraqi), not to mention great gobs of money, down the toilet.
The fourth reason escalation is dangerous (if we need another reason beyond "it is wildly unlikely to succeed") is that further escalation threatens the long-term health of our military, both human and an equipment. A large group of active and retired Generals (including Army Chief of Staff General Peter Schoomaker, recently ousted General John Abizaid, retired and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Secretary of State General Colin Powell, and very vocal retired General Kevin Ryan) have strongly and publicly stated that our military has been broken or nearly broken by the Iraq campaign. We do not have the troops or equipment to sustain this long an engagement, much less an escalation. The cost to our soldiers and their families is unsustainable. Recruitment is down (despite lowered requirements), replacing troops has become more difficult and, with increased signing incentives for those new soldiers, many of whom would not have qualified for service even one or two years ago before standards were lowered, and with the vast number who come back wounded and psychologically traumatized, every recruit is more expensive than ever before. What's more, even if the Iraq war stopped today and all the troops returned home, it would take tens of billions of dollars and nearly a decade to return our troops and equipment to the fighting strength we were at just four years ago when this all started. During WWII, the military had to engage in PR campaigns to encourage people to buy war bonds so that we could buy bullets and jeeps to continue to fight the war. Were it not for our modern military's deficit financing, we'd be in the same position in Iraq. If the military had to go door to door asking the American people for money so that it could continue to fight in a war that now 70% of us think should be stopped, do you think anyone would be even considering escalation?
In light of the proposed escalation's unlikely success, and in light of the very likely long-term damage it would do to the American military, it becomes clear that President Bush's "surge" proposal tonight is nothing more than a political hail-mary, designed to save a legacy which, with every passing day, is more and more likely to be entirely about failure in Iraq. If the President manages to get the surge he's requested, he'll increase troop levels and the appearance of American commitment to winning in Iraq (whatever that means, which no one seems to know anymore). When he leaves office in two years in the midst of an ongoing war with no end in sight, he'll be able to say he tried his best to win, and actually figuring out a way out of Iraq will become the next president's problem. If he proposes surge and the newly empowered Democrats stop it by exercising their only power over the military (using their nascent control of Congress to cut off funding -- the same way Congress finally put a stop to the Vietnam war), he can say that he was willing to make the hard sacrifices to win, but that the Democrats wanted to lose; in the simple black-and-white world of Bush politics, sending thousands of Americans to die trying to "win" a hopeless battle which cannot be won is noble, but admitting that we made a mistake and trying to stop the increasingly violent conflict before it gets any worse is "losing." At this point, Bush saves his legacy only if he can successfully push the blame for our inevitable failure in Iraq on to someone else -- the surge proposal, however it plays out, gives him that opportunity. Clearly, Bush and his administration are interested only in his legacy and the political future of the Republican party, and they are clearly willing to use the lives of American soldiers and Iraqis as the currency to buy a chance at a positive outcome for both.
Surge, or, more correctly, escalation in Iraq is not a viable answer. The only viable answer is admission of our overreaching, and to quickly plan for disengagement. The military did its job successfully -- it routed the Taliban in Afghanistan, it overthrew and captured Saddam Hussein, and it definitely proved that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction. The military did not fail. It was our political leaders, whose plans for empire building and oil control in the middle east and whose lies to mask those plans in a false idea of our national security drove us into this impossible situation, who failed. It was those conniving leaders who pulled troops out of Afghanistan, leaving behind Osama bin Laden and a young government which desperately needed us to stay. It was those crafty leaders who ordered the invasion of Iraq with no plans for rebuilding and no exit strategy. Those American soldiers who fought bravely for the selfish desires of a pack of greedy liars have no cause for shame in withdrawing from Iraq. It is only President Bush and his cronies who should, for what they've done to Iraq, to the long-term health of American military, to the American people, and to the American economy, feel shame. Unfortunately, it seems very clear that President Bush is simply not capable of shame. Tonight, I fear, he will continue to prove it.