President Bush’s new strategy for Iraq — to be announced mid-week — will almost certainly include a surge of troops to attempt to secure the Baghdad area. To do it, he’s replaced almost his entire national security team, and the new bunch is a collection of some of the very best we have. But will his policy match their mettle?
We now know the composition of the new war team that, almost wholesale, replaced the one that has served since 9-11. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has been replaced by Robert Gates and ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad (and almost certainly to be appointed to replace John Bolton at the UN) is being replaced by Ryan Crocker, an old-line and relatively low-profile State Department hand. The New York Times seems to love him, which is a clear warning sign. Crocker will probably not be a major player. His appointment means that the diplomatic efforts in Baghdad will play second fiddle to the new military team. At the risk of reading too much into this, Crocker’s appointment may be a signal that the president is about ready to give up on the Maliki government.
The fact that Gens. George Casey and John Abizaid — top commander in Iraq and commander of CENTCOM respectively — are being replaced means little more than that George W. Bush is doing what many other president’s have done: changing horses in mid-war. From Lincoln firing McClellan to Truman firing MacArthur (neither example being apposite) presidents have frequently fired their generals when progress wasn’t what the commander in chief wanted. The simple fact is that Casey and Abizaid haven’t won the war. That is as likely to have been the result of the policy they were implementing as their performance of it. But their fate, regardless of fault, is the same. Replacing them are to real warriors: Army Lt. Gen. David Petraeus (to the Kurds, and in no way disparagingly, “King David”) and Adm. William “Fox” Fallon. Neither would be the choice of a president who plans to cut and run.
Speaking to some of Petraeus’s peers and former bosses this weekend — including retired Marine Lt. Gen. Mike “Rifle” Delong, who Petraeus worked for in the Afghanistan campaign — the uniform comment I received from Petraeus’s peers and former superiors was that David Petraeus is the best possible person for the job. If anyone can unravel the cluster of Iraq, he can. If the president lets him. Petraeus is a warrior-intellectual and was tremendously effective in Afghanistan and then in Kurdish northern Iraq. He has done well not only in commanding forces in combat (he was commander of the 101st Airborne) but in dealing with local populations, smoothing over as well as anyone can the issues arising from U.S. forces fighting in Muslim nations.
A long time coming, the removal of Gen. John Abizaid as commander of Central Command is still something of a surprise. Our highest-ranking officer of Arab descent seemed impervious to political criticism. He didn’t fail in Iraq. But he didn’t succeed either. By replacing Abizaid with Adm. William Fallon, well-known commander of Pacific Command, the president showed he is still willing to take risks, both political and military. CENTCOM has been the private fiefdom of ground force commanders, one of which Fallon ain’t. Fallon is a big-thinker, credited with some of the success we’ve had diplomatically in the Pacific in the past three years. With many of China’s neighbors and with China itself, Fallon has (third man on a team of Rumsfeld and Asst. SecDef Peter Rodman) succeeded in restoring America’s credibility among nations that thought themselves (after Vietnam and Hong Kong) abandoned by the West. Given his track record and the awesome capability he will have at CENTCOM, Fallon should succeed. If the president’s new policy lets him.
The third change made last week was either the most important or the least. Former UN ambassador John Negroponte moves from the post of Director of National Security to Deputy Secretary of State. Negroponte was a disaster in the intelligence job, dispersing assets that should have been consolidated, continuing the congressionally mandated disaster of intelligence “reform.” Adm. Mike McConnell, the new DNI, is an intel professional, highly regarded by the old spy crowd even though his experience is almost entirely with the beeps and squeaks crew (the signals intel, satellite and eavesdropping folk). The question facing McConnell is an impossible one: how can he create the human intelligence networks our forces need desperately? Unless and until he can do this, his job will be spear catching in front of Congressional committees. He will have a very tough time.
None of this — none at all — will mean anything unless the president comes up with a new policy that can produce decisive results in Iraq, and soon. The options the president has available aren’t many, and none are likely to produce the results he needs to hold off Democratic and media opposition.
As I’ve written many times before, and expect to do many times again, the president has refused consistently to speak plainly about what is going on in Iraq, what the goal of the larger war is, and how we will achieve it. He insists that our goal is an Iraq that can defend, sustain, and govern itself and is an ally in the larger war. By saying that he implicitly defines his policy by goals impossible to achieve because he declines to include solving the main problems: the terrorist-sponsoring nations of Iran and Syria.
Face it: “Fox” Fallon and David Petraeus can defeat any enemy any day of the week the president chooses. But, like every military leader who serves a democracy, these men will not go beyond the president’s orders or do things that they might want to if the president denies them permission. The Democrats in Congress — for all their puffing and blowing — have no role in the conduct of the war unless they summon the courage to cut off funding for it. This is still George Bush’s war to win or lose.
This war, and the mess in Iraq, has never been a matter of how many troops we have there. It is a matter of what we order them to do.
This is George Bush’s last chance to lay out a strategy to win this war. There won’t be, between now and 2008, another chance to change course dramatically because what is changed now won’t play out soon enough to allow it. What he will do I don’t know. But he could set the right path. As Churchill said, it is not enough to say we are doing our best. It is necessary to succeed at what must be accomplished. The president needn’t and shouldn’t lay out specifics. Instead, he should outline a policy that can succeed at what must be accomplished. He can:
* Announce that America’s policy is regime change in Iran. Tell the Iranian people that America is not their enemy, but is the enemy of their government. Tell them we stand beside them just as we stood beside the brave shipyard workers of Gdansk when they sought to overthrow their oppressors. And tell them that we will help them achieve their freedom both overtly and covertly. The time is not now ripe for rebellion, but hope should grow in Iran;
* Tell the Iranian government that Maliki has (if he, indeed has) forbidden that we attack Iran from Iraq, so we will do what we have to do from elsewhere. And we have the right to capture or kill any Iranian soldiers in Iraq (there are many) and to engage in hot pursuit of any that choose to flee;
* Tell the world that we will surge 30,000 troops into Iraq for a year or more, but they will be used exclusively to capture or kill foreign fighters, close the “rat lines” on which Iranian Revolutionary Guard members are smuggling weapons into Iraq and to capture or kill Iraqi insurgents and insurgent leaders cooperating with Iran and Syria. We should place a bounty on the Iranian soldiers in Iraq and capture or kill Abu Mustafa al-Shebani, the head of the network in Iraq that works with Iran;
* Tell the Middle East that it is they who are creating sectarian violence in Iraq. The Saudis are doing their level best to maintain the Sunni insurgency by word and deed. If we cannot stop them, we can expose them. If Iraq degenerates into a Sunni-Shia war (and all that stands between Iraq now and Iraq then is American troops) the blood will be on Saudi, Syrian and Iranian hands; and
* Tell them all that this is America’s policy, that we are in it to win, and whether Iraq is free or not is a side issue. We’re in the Middle East to drain the terrorist swamp.
How much of that will comprise the president’s speech? To the degree it doesn’t, the president will have lost his last great chance.
TAS contributing editor Jed Babbin is the author of Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe Are Worse Than You Think (Regnery, 2004) and, with Edward Timperlake, Showdown: Why China Wants War With the United States (Regnery, 2006).
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