TROOP SURGE CAN’T BE BRIEF, BACKERS INSIST
The leading advocates of an increase in U.S. forces in Iraq warned President Bush on Friday that any buildup lasting less than 18 months was doomed to fail, and urged the White House to avoid compromises that would scale back the plan.
The hard line taken by such backers as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and retired Army Gen. Jack Keane comes as the Bush administration continues to debate the size and the scope of an expected troop increase. White House spokesman Tony Snow said Bush had “not entirely” made up his mind, even as Bush reorganized top war advisors and began meeting with key members of Congress in advance of a major address next week.
Bush faces growing unease about an extended buildup among some congressional Republicans, who are concerned that it could stretch into the 2008 election season and doom their reelection chances. About five to 10 such Republicans are in the Senate, according to GOP aides, and are expected to push for time limits or firm conditions in return for backing the increase.
“For any kind of a surge, they would have to show that the surge itself was limited,” said one senior Republican leadership aide, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It would have to be six months or a year, tops.”
A strategy advocated by McCain and Keane, who has advised Bush on Iraq policy, calls for about 30,000 additional troops who would remain in Iraq from 18 months to two years. About 140,000 U.S. troops are now in Iraq.
The proposal has heavily influenced administration thinking, and it has strong advocates within the Pentagon and White House, setting up tension between those advocating a broad troop buildup and those supporting a more limited increase.
“The worst of all worlds would be a short, small surge of U.S. forces,” McCain said at a forum on the final version of the plan, developed by Keane and Frederick Kagan, a military analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. “This troop surge [must be] significant and sustained; otherwise, don’t do it.”
Advocates of the plan say a large, sustained increase is needed to hold and rebuild pacified Baghdad neighborhoods, where sectarian violence resurges once overstretched U.S. troops move on to other parts of the capital. A short-term or limited troop increase would allow insurgents and sectarian death squads to wait out the U.S. offensive, advocates argue.
“The enemy always expects us to surge and leave,” said Kagan, a former faculty member at the U.S. Military Academy. “If we surge for three or six months and then pull our forces back, the enemy will be right there waiting.”
But a more substantial buildup appears to be running into opposition from some within the president’s own party. The senior Republican leadership aide said that GOP skeptics in the Senate either opposed or had significant reservations about a troop increase.
“We have people on all sides of this. We’re all over the map,” the aide said.
Only three of those Republican skeptics have gone public -- Sens. Gordon H. Smith of Oregon, Norm Coleman of Minnesota and John E. Sununu of New Hampshire. All three represent states with a large Democratic electorate and are expected to seek reelection in 2008.
Some Republicans fear the buildup will be seen as an escalation of the current policy.
“Some are calling this ‘staying the course super-sized,’ ” said a senior staffer for a skeptical Republican moderate.
McCain said he thought Republican fence-sitters would rally around the president once the plan was announced, which could be as soon as Wednesday.
“Most of my Republican colleagues are waiting to hear the president,” McCain said. “I think you’ll see, at the end of the day, most Republicans will support the president’s proposal.”
Congress’ new Democratic leadership came out forcefully Friday against any increase in troops, calling on Bush in a letter to reject calls for escalation, arguing it would allow the Iraqi government to delay taking over responsibility for its own security.
The letter, signed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said their views were shared by senior military leaders, and the two warned that an increase could overstretch U.S. ground forces.
“We’re willing to work with the president on a new way forward, but the surge is not the way forward,” Reid said at a news conference. “The president said he was going to listen to his commanders, but if he listens to his commanders he can’t do this. I know he’s shuffling some of them out; I’ve been told it’s because they’re not telling them what he wants to hear.”
Other leading Democrats, however, appeared to be more open to the proposal.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who backs plans to gradually withdraw troops from Iraq, said he could support an increase in troops as long as the Iraqi government first took concrete steps toward achieving political reconciliation within the country.
“That at least puts pressure on Iraqis,” Levin said. “That’s what I would call ‘hard conditionality.’ ”
Bush continued his reorganization of his Iraq team ahead of next week’s strategy announcement. In the latest shift, Bush named Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the U.S. ground commander in Iraq for the last two years, as the Army’s new chief of staff, taking over from Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, whose term expires in August.
The move was widely anticipated while Donald H. Rumsfeld was Defense secretary, but there had been speculation in the Pentagon that Casey would retire, given the administration’s shift away from his strategy in Iraq.
Bush also confirmed reports he would replace Casey in Iraq with Army Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, believed to be an advocate of a more complex counterinsurgency campaign, and would nominate Navy Adm. William J. “Fox” Fallon as the new head of U.S. Central Command, the military’s Middle East headquarters being vacated by retiring Army Gen. John P. Abizaid.
Bush also formally nominated retired Navy Vice Adm. J. Michael McConnell as the new director of national intelligence, replacing John D. Negroponte, who is moving to become the No. 2 State Department official.
There were hints that more moves are in the works. John Hillen, the State Department assistant secretary in charge of political and military affairs, who played a key role in the agency’s efforts in Iraq, has made plans to leave the department this month after 15 months in the job.
Bush is also expected to reassign two U.S. ambassadors: Zalmay Khalilzad, now in Iraq, would go to the United Nations; Ryan Crocker, now in Pakistan, would replace Khalilzad in Iraq. (John R. Bolton left the U.N. ambassadorship at the end of a recess appointment when it became clear he lacked Senate backing to remain in the post.)
As part of Bush’s ongoing consultations in advance of next week’s announcement next week, he and members of his national security team met Friday with a group of 15 senators to discuss Iraq policy.
According to senators in attendance and White House officials, Bush disclosed no details of his thinking. Congressional aides said the White House did not intend to brief congressional leaders on his plan until Wednesday, just hours before Bush delivers the nationwide speech, which has angered Reid.
Despite the lack of details, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), one of those who attended the meeting in the Cabinet Room, said Bush’s plan appeared likely to include a substantial buildup.
“I did walk away believing that a surge of some sort will be part of any plan,” Nelson said. “But I do believe ... another part would be a set of conditions for the Iraqis to go through, for Prime Minister [Nouri] Maliki to go through.”
Other senators in attendance said skepticism was widespread among Democrats and Republicans about a troop increase. Many advocated strict guidelines and benchmarks to prod the Iraqi government into action.
“I would say that they were all opposed to it unless he come up with some spectacular idea and a way to measure that idea,” said Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), a participant. “They weren’t unequivocally against it, but most would say ... the burden of proof was on the president.”
Added Nelson: “I don’t think there was anything partisan about the skepticism. But the message was: Tell us more, and when you tell us more we can make up our minds.”
Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) said he told the president that “he has the burden of proof” if he wants to send more troops.
“He has to show the American people what we do next,” Pryor said.
The assertion by spokesman Snow that Bush has yet to make up his mind on the plan was echoed in other parts of the government, and there are indications the White House is considering options short of a full-scale, long-term buildup.
Although the most likely scenario includes an increase of 20,000 troops, another option is a gradual increase of forces, with perhaps a portion of new forces sent into Iraq while other brigades stayed in the U.S. or Kuwait as backup.
Times staff writers Noam N. Levey, Nicole Gaouette, Paul Richter and James Gerstenzang in Washington contributed to this report.