A Skeptic’s Case for the Surge

President Bush’s plan for a surge of American troops in Iraq has run into a brick wall of congressional opposition. Critics rightly argue that it may well be too little, way too late. But for a skeptical Congress and nation, it is still the right thing to try — as long as we do not count on it succeeding and we start working on backup plans even as we grant Bush his request.

However mediocre its prospects, each main element of the president’s plan has some logic behind it. On the military surge itself, critics of the administration’s Iraq policy have consistently argued that the United States never deployed enough soldiers and Marines to Iraq. Now Bush has essentially conceded his critics’ points. To be sure, adding 21,500 American troops (and having them conduct classic counterinsurgency operations) is not a huge change and may be too late.

But it would still be counterintuitive for the president’s critics to prevent him from carrying out the very policy they have collectively recommended.

Similarly, the president wants to move in the right direction on economic reconstruction. For far too long his plans were focused almost exclusively on repairing and rebuilding large infrastructure. The president conceded in a speech in December 2005 that he had placed too much faith in this “Halliburton strategy,” yet it has taken more than a year for him to make amends and focus a large part of his economic strategy on the mundane task of creating jobs. This type of policy is unlikely to create the strong and durable underpinnings of long-term Iraqi economic growth. But like FDR’s job creation programs of the 1930s, it responds to the political needs of a nation under duress. And it is good security policy in a country where too many angry, disenfranchised, unemployed young men are joining insurgent groups and militias.

Finally, President Bush is rightly telegraphing to Iraqi leaders that they must reach compromises with each other — on sharing oil revenue, on reining in militias, on allowing those former Baathists without blood on their hands to regain their opportunities to hold jobs in Iraq. He correctly argues that without progress on such matters, there will be no success in the mission and the American people will continue to lose faith in the effort. This stands in contrast to incorrect comments he made as recently as November, during his trip to Vietnam, when he argued that we could fail in Iraq only if we Americans lose our resolve.

In fact, we need a viable Iraqi partner with broad support across sectarian lines, and American policy must strive to help create that partner.

Rather than deny funding for Bush’s initiatives, Congress should provide it now — but only for fiscal 2007 (meaning through September). By that point, or even the August congressional recess, we should know if the surge is showing promise. If it does, Congress could consider continuing its support. If not, the moment will be right to force the president’s hand and move to a backup plan.

In their testimony before Congress on Thursday, both Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged that within months we should be able to learn much about the Iraqi government’s willingness to support this new effort. The plan requires more Iraqi troops and more Iraqi government acquiescence in their unfettered use. In addition, one of the main outside architects of the surge strategy, retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, told NPR on Thursday that if the president’s plan works we should see an improvement in the security environment this year. Clearly these statements suggest that we should be able to evaluate the success of the strategy in short order.

If Bush’s plan does not work, what might our new policy be? Taking the Shiite-Kurdish side in Iraq’s civil war (the “80 percent solution,” as some call it) would probably guarantee the emergence of a sanctuary for al-Qaeda in the Sunni Arab region and, as such, is a bad idea. Similarly, trying to engineer a coup to create a benign autocracy in Iraq would be very difficult to achieve. As Bosnia expert Edward P. Joseph and I have recently argued, building on the ideas of Sen. Joe Biden and Leslie Gelb, something akin to a Bosnia model for Iraq would make more sense. Iraq would retain a loose confederal structure, a small national government and a mechanism for sharing oil revenue equally. But governance and security would be provided primarily by three autonomous regional governments.

Citizens would be given the chance to relocate to places where they felt safe, with the government and the coalition providing protection in the process as well as assistance with new housing and jobs.

If the surge fails, we will need a whole new paradigm for Iraq policy, and it is hardly too soon for Congress to start fleshing out our choices. But for now, Congress should also give the president the money and support that he requests.