The Duck of Minerva

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The Last Best Chance for Iraq


January 17, 2007

Yesterday as I was driving home, I caught the better part of President Bush’s interview with The News Hour’s Jim Lehrer (full transcript here).

I found it quite interesting– a very different Bush than I had heard before. Different in tone, different in style, and somewhat different in substance. Here, Bush admitted openly and honestly that he and his administration made real mistakes in Iraq:

Part of the failure for our reaction was ourselves. I mean, we should have found troops and moved them.

The purpose of the interview, along with others he’s been giving this week, is to sell his new Iraq plan of sending in a “surge” of 21,000 additional US troops. While the prime-time national television presentation of the plan wasn’t great, in the interview, Bush’s plan sounded reasonably compelling.

More importantly, and I think this is what Bush is banking on politically, as I listened, I wanted him to be right. I don’t think that anyone is rooting for the US to fail in Iraq– as Rodger pointed out in his Monday post, the tragic consequences of failure in Iraq bring tremendous death and suffering.

But, as I listened, I shook my head in disappointment and disbelief. Where was this speech two years ago? In 2004 or 2005, perhaps this kind of plan might have made a real difference. But now, given past failures of operations like Together Forward and the increased sectarian violence, it may well be too-little, too late. You don’t get a “do-over” in foreign policy.

Then I heard the real “faith-based” presidency come through in this exchange:

MR. LEHRER: General Casey said yesterday that the commander said that it may be spring or even summer before we have any signs of success from the new program –


MR. LEHRER: — from the new strategy, and even then I can’t guarantee you that it’s going to work. That’s the general; that’s the guy who is the commander.

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, I – look, I mean, I think that’s a –

MR. LEHRER: That’s –

PRESIDENT BUSH: — that’s a sober assessment. Well, it’s a sober assessment. I think he’s not going to stand up and make guarantees that may or may not happen, but he is also the general who felt like we needed more troops, and he’s also the general that believes this is the best chance of working. I think he’s giving a realistic assessment for people.

I also said in my speech you can expect more killing. In other words, it’s still going to be a dangerous environment because the enemy is likely to step up attacks to try to discourage the Iraqi government and to discourage the American people.

MR. LEHRER: Well, Mr. President, how can there then be a strategy based on trying to attain success if even more people are going to die – Americans as well as Iraqis?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, the – the purpose of the strategy, Jim, is to settle Baghdad down, is to secure neighborhoods, is to give the Iraqi people a chance to live in peace, which is what they want. And the way to do that is to send troops into neighborhoods to clean the neighborhoods of insurgents and terrorists, and it’s to hold the neighborhoods. And the problem in the past, there weren’t enough troops to hold the neighborhoods after neighborhoods had been cleared….

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, I think – you know, I – I didn’t listen to General Casey’s comments. The only thing I can tell you is what he told me. He said this has got the best chance of working. And we thought about what is the best way to succeed, and this is the best way to succeed in his mind and in my mind.

The “sober” and “realistic” assessment of the in-country General is that this gives us the best chance to win. Casey did not say it would work, he said that of all the options, it has the best chance of working. Bush can’t seem to articulate that he understands the difference–best chance does not mean will work.

I just don’t think that this “chance” is all that high. The plan counts heavily on the Iraqis to step up and provide security. As the NYT reported Sunday:

But the signs so far have unnerved some Americans working on the plan, who have described a web of problems — ranging from a contested chain of command to how to protect American troops deployed in some of Baghdad’s most dangerous districts — that some fear could hobble the effort before it begins.

Sober generals usually have a “Plan B” for when their last best chance becomes a SNAFU. Unfortunatley, this administration won’t allow talk of a Plan B.

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.