Staying the wrong course in Iraq

MAX BOOT is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

FOR THE LAST three years, the Bush administration has pursued a policy of wishful thinking in Iraq, operating under the hope that some deus ex machina -- either elections or the capture of insurgent leaders -- would salvage a deteriorating situation. Well, Iraq has now had three successful nationwide ballots. Saddam Hussein has been captured. Abu Musab Zarqawi has been killed. And still violence continues to intensify in Baghdad and the Sunni provinces to the west and north.

The situation is particularly dire in Iraq’s capital. In May, according to the Los Angeles Times, 2,155 homicides occurred in Baghdad, 85% of the national total. “The situation has worsened considerably in the last couple of months,” blogger Alaa wrote at on June 16. A week later, the New York Times reported that the chaos was spreading even to the Mansour district, Baghdad’s Beverly Hills. “It’s falling to the terrorists,” said one resident. “They are coming nearer to us now. No one is stopping them.”

This dire assessment cannot be dismissed as knee-jerk negativity from media naysayers because it matches the picture painted by U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. In a June 6 cable reprinted in the Washington Post, he reported that local embassy employees were finding it difficult to function outside the Green Zone amid rampant crime, fundamentalism and sectarianism.

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has launched Operation Forward Together in an attempt to regain control of his own capital. This crackdown is in only its second week, and it is too soon to tell if it will work, but there have been several terrorist atrocities since it started. The problem is that Forward Together relies heavily on police officers who are so sectarian and corrupt that they are part of the problem, not the solution.


No extra American (or Iraqi) soldiers have been sent into Baghdad. Former viceroy L. Paul Bremer reported that Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez told him in 2004 that with two extra divisions, “I’d control Baghdad,” but those extra divisions -- 35,000 to 40,000 soldiers -- have never been forthcoming.

Instead, news leaked out this weekend that a drawdown of U.S. forces may take place starting in the fall. It is possible that this withdrawal plan, like earlier ones, will be shelved, but this announcement sends the wrong message at a critical time. The message is that the Pentagon is more concerned with finding an exit strategy than a winning strategy: precisely the charge that Republicans level at Democrats.

IHAVE NEVER been a dogmatist on the issue of troop levels. I was not one of those who criticized the original invasion force in 2003 for being too small. There were enough troops to take Baghdad, and there were legitimate reasons to fear that sending too many Americans would cause a backlash. Better to have focused on supporting Iraqi security forces -- except there were none to support. The Iraqi army was dissolved by the U.S., and no serious effort was made for a whole year to field a replacement force, creating a security vacuum that has never been filled.

By now it should be obvious that the “light footprint” approach has not worked. It has increased, not decreased, resentment of the United States because Iraqis are aggrieved by the breakdown of law and order. Yet there appears to be no serious rethinking of this flawed strategy at either the Pentagon or the White House.

The administration may think it doesn’t have any more troops to send. It’s true that the armed forces are overstretched and need to be enlarged, but there are still just 150,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq out of 2.6 million in the active-duty ranks, reserves and National Guard. More soldiers could be found to police Baghdad if this were deemed a top priority.

Some in the administration may think that increasing troop numbers, which may bring more casualties, would be political poison. But what’s really hurting Republicans politically is not the number of troops in Iraq, or even the continuing casualties. It’s the perception that we’re not winning. If a heightened troop presence could establish security in Baghdad, the president and his party would reap a reward at the polls.

The fact that the administration continues to “stay the course” with a losing strategy suggests the need for a change of strategists. The president needs a new secretary of Defense -- and possibly new generals -- who would be more focused on finding a way to win rather than to withdraw.