Our next strategic and tactical moves in Iraq need to be governed by how we plan to deal with Iran. This will be the principal issue for the newly designated Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The Middle East and all its Byzantine machinations are well known to Mr. Gates, who brings a wealth of intelligence experience to the job.
Now, however, he must come to grips with how best to utilize the military options available to him. A careful balance will need to be struck between our worldwide commitments and force allocations necessary to achieve our objectives in Iraq and elsewhere in the region.
The Baker-Hamilton Committee on finding a new direction for Iraq, of which Mr. Gates is a member, is expected to submit its report to the president soon. While we don’t know the specifics of the committee’s recommendation, a proactive, pre-emptive strategy is fundamental to defeating the radical Islamist threat. This can take many forms, ranging from pre-emptive search warrants and arrests (as recently in London) to military strikes targeting both terrorist infrastructure and disruption of planned attacks.
The key to this strategy — and something Robert Gates as defense secretary must encourage — is a redirection of our intelligence programs with a dramatic increase of our HUMINT (human intelligence) penetration capabilities. We cannot accomplish this alone. We will need to enlist our allies as well as those Arab governments equally at risk from the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.
President Bush’s abrupt announcement he was replacing Donald Rumsfeld with Mr. Gates obviously stunned the Iraqi prime minister. An atmosphere of uncertainty has been introduced; something the U.S. should capitalize on immediately by insisting on much greater cooperation than recently displayed by the Iraqi government. The prime minister must now display the leadership necessary to bring the sectarian violence under control, which most likely will require a new interior minister.
We need to initiate more combined raids utilizing trusted Iraqi Special Forces supported by the U.S. military. This will keep the Mahdi Army, the Shia and Sunni death squads and other miscellaneous renegade militias off-balance.
Lastly, with a new defense secretary, we have an opportunity to take a fresh look at the combat force levels in Iraq. If more troops are required, now is the time to start inserting them. That sort of decisive move will send the right signal to the Iraqi government, to the insurgents and most important to Iran, giving allies and adversaries a sure sign we will neither be driven out of the region nor abandon our friends. Further, by adjusting our military posture aggressively, we will be in a stronger position to achieve our long-term objectives in Iraq and throughout the Middle East theater.
James A. Lyons, retired admiral in the U.S. Navy, is a former commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations and deputy chief of naval operations, where he was principal adviser on all Joint Chiefs of Staff matters.