The harder President Bush has pushed to win in Iraq, the closer he has come to losing.
The question no longer is whether the U.S. military can fully stabilize Iraq. It cannot.
That was a possibility four years ago, immediately after Saddam Hussein’s government fell. Before the insurgency took hold. Before U.S. occupation authorities lost any chance to avoid the sectarian strife of today’s Iraq.
Now only the Iraqis can save Iraq.
They need the U.S. military’s help, no doubt. But the Bush administration has made no secret of the fact that the U.S. troop buildup in Baghdad is simply buying time for the Iraqis to sort out their differences, create a government of national unity and show they can defend themselves.
So it is not whether the U.S. can win the war. It is whether the Iraqis can, which is in great doubt.
With limited sign of progress in Baghdad, U.S. officials are asking themselves how long it makes sense to tolerate an escalating rate of U.S. casualties — at least 3,576 dead since the war began in March 2003 — while the Iraqis debate and delay.
In a speech Thursday, Bush struck a notably optimistic tone about his strategy and gave no indication he was ready to give up or change approach. Yet he lowered the bar on expectations and cited Israel as a model for defining success in Iraq: a functioning democracy that nonetheless absorbs terrorist attacks.
Among the questions central to the debate in Washington over winding up the conflict without widening it are:
- How much worse might things get if U.S. troops left and the sectarian killing escalated?
- Would Turkey, Iran or other neighboring states intervene militarily?
- Would the al-Qaida terrorist organization inside Iraq secure a lasting haven from which it could launch attacks across the region? “Lighting the Middle East on fire,” is how one Pentagon insider sees that outcome.
While there is no clear way out, there remains a reasonable basis for hope of escaping a collapse of the war effort.
It still is possible that the troop buildup, under way since January, will reduce sectarian violence in Baghdad enough to create the maneuvering room that Iraqi leaders need to make critical political progress.
Outcome could look like victory
According to Frederick Kagan, an American Enterprise Institute analyst who recently visited Baghdad and is a leading supporter of the current strategy, the truly decisive phase of the current campaign will begin in late July or early August. He predicts that phase will bring much lower levels of violence by year’s end.
The trends so far, however, are not encouraging and the political tides are not favorable, either in Washington or Baghdad.
Just this past week a leading Republican voice on foreign affairs, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, broke ranks with Bush. Lugar said he had reached the conclusion that sticking with the current strategy will not serve U.S. security interests.
He also said it is almost impossible to establish a stable government in Baghdad in a reasonable time.
Other prominent Republicans, such as Sen. John Warner of Virginia, have indicated their patience is running out.
Time, indeed, seems to be working against Bush — in the political arena and on the battlefield.
The longer that U.S. forces fight, the more creative and deadly the insurgents become, the farther U.S. public support erodes and the more remote seem the chances that when troops finally leave, the outcome will look like victory.
The risk is that it may resemble defeat.
Effect on U.S. military
One more worry is the wear and tear on the Army and Marine Corps. The services were straining to keep up a staggering pace of troop rotations even before Bush decided to send thousands more into and around Baghdad and before the Pentagon decided that rotations would be extended from 12 months — already viewed by many as too long — to 15 months.
That is why, if Bush concludes in the months ahead that his strategy for securing Baghdad is not working fast enough, he may feel compelled to find a different approach, perhaps reducing the U.S. combat role without abandoning Iraq. He has hinted at such a transition possibly coming next year.
That could explain why Bush and other administration officials recently have cited South Korea as a possible model for the long-term U.S. military role in Iraq. The idea would be to work out an agreement with the Iraqi government to keep at least a tripwire U.S. force there to train with Iraqi troops and to act as a deterrent.
The point is that instead of completely abandoning Iraq, as the U.S. did in Vietnam in the 1970s, the U.S. would maintain a presence large enough to protect its broader interests in the Persian Gulf region.