President Bush Iraq Surge Has Political Price

On Wednesday evening, President Bush unveiled his new Iraq strategy, which focuses on a surge of 21,500 US troops and sets a collision course between the White House and the US Congress.

In his speech to the nation, the President conceded that mistakes had been made in the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, including invading with too few troops, failing to understand historical sectarian tensions in Iraq, disbanding the Iraqi army, banning the secular Ba’ath Party and underestimating the strength of the insurgency.  The establishment of al Qaeda in Iraq – and its expansion in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries in the Middle East – was another consequence, but not acknowledged in the President’s speech.

Most of the additional troops will be embedded in Iraqi security forces in Baghdad, with 4,000 US marines to be sent to the Anbar province in western Iraq, which has become a stronghold for al Qaeda since the US invasion.  Mr Bush also seems to have acknowledged the importance of economic development, a hallmark of counterinsurgency doctrine. Since the 2003 invasion, the unemployment rate has hovered around 60%, which has assisted the recruitment of young men into local militias who offer sporadic income.

Iraq will receive $1.2 billion in a new economic assistance package that emphasizes grass-roots employment creation, instead of giving all the reconstruction work to US military contractors. Yet many believe that such realizations have come too little, too late – and that the bloody civil war in Iraq has now escalated to such a level that further US military intervention will be ineffective.

Recent polls indicate that the majority of Americans support a withdrawal of US troops, and the return of Democrats to power in both houses of Congress in November has been widely regarded as a rejection of continued US involvement in Iraq. Congressional Democrats are strongly opposed to the increase in US troops in Iraq, yet their options for heading off the increase are limited.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has consistently ruled out de-funding the US military in Iraq, which she fears could be interpreted as a lack of support for US troops. She and other key Democrats believe that the solution to Iraq’s problems are political and not military. “Iraqi political leaders will not take the necessary steps to achieve a political resolution to the sectarian problems in their country until they understand that the US commitment is not open-ended. Escalating our military involvement in Iraq sends precisely the wrong message and we oppose it,” said a joint statement by Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Democratic Whip Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Rep. Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

Politically, the Democrats lack the numbers to block Mr Bush’s plan but will launch a series of hearings and pass non-binding resolutions to denounce the increase in troops.  Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) has also proposed legislation that would require congressional approval for any increases in troop numbers; however, even if passed, it is likely to be vetoed by Mr Bush.

Although several congressional Republicans have openly criticized the increase in troops, it is unclear how many would actually vote with Democrats to override a presidential veto. In any event, the votes expected to be taken in Congress will serve the Democrats’ political strategy by dividing the Republicans over the war and demonstrating the commitment of the Democrats to act on the will of the American people.

While there has been widespread opposition to the troop surge from members of Congress, the most vocal opposition has predictably come from the Democratic ranks. “As our commanders have said repeatedly, Iraq requires a political solution, not a purely military one, and we did not hear such a proposed solution tonight,” said Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.).

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said he doubts that the troop surge will “make a significant dent in the sectarian violence” and wants Congress to ensure that “the mistake of going into Iraq was not compounded by this further mistake”.   Expressing concern for the broader implications of the war in Iraq, Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) said, “Escalating our involvement with an increase in the number of troops in Iraq will further strain our own military and reduce our ability to fight a global war on terror.”

Many Republican senators support the view that US policy in Iraq needs to be driven by political solutions. “I do not believe that sending more troops to Iraq is the answer. Iraq requires a political rather than a military solution,” said Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.).

“This is a dangerously wrongheaded strategy that will drive America deeper into an unwinnable swamp at a great cost,” said Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), a Vietnam veteran.   On the other hand, a number of Republicans still believe the war is winnable and have defended the troop surge.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has long advocated a surge in troops, said, “`We have to succeed. We must succeed. The consequences of failure are catastrophic in the region.” House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) supports the troop surge as “our best shot at victory in Iraq.” He also said, “If Democrat leaders don’t support the president’s plan, it’s their responsibility to put forward a plan of their own for achieving victory.” The so-far elusive goal of victory in Iraq was the objective stressed by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates when he faced a highly skeptical House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, but the committee’s new chairman, Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), has dismissed President Bush’s new strategy as “three and a half years late and several hundred thousand troops short”. Yesterday, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice was grilled on the Iraq war by a hostile Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) drove home the point that, like other decision-makers in the Bush administration, Dr Rice had no children or immediate family endangered by the war in Iraq: “Madam Secretary, please. I know you feel terrible about it. That’s not the point. I was making the case as to who pays the price for your decisions.”


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