- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 13, 2007

So he didn’t take my advice. Despite recommendations to the contrary in this column last week, President Bush announced last Wednesday that he has “committed more than 20,000 additional American troops to Iraq.” That’s the headline. But there’s a lot more to the story. It’s rife with risk — and great opportunity.

First, the good news. The most important statement of the speech was an accurate description of the present situation. Said Mr. Bush: “The challenge playing out across the broader Middle East is more than a military conflict. It is the decisive ideological struggle of our time.” The president acknowledged that “only the Iraqis can end the sectarian violence and secure their people,” and that “failure in Iraq would be a disaster for the United States.” He’s dead right on all counts.

His “new strategy” for using U.S. forces in Baghdad follows a model now effectively employed in Al Anbar Province. There, as we reported last month from Ramadi for Fox News, Sunni police officers, Shia Army troops and U.S. military personnel have been building police stations and driving al Qaeda terrorists out of the provincial capital one neighborhood at a time. The administration’s “New Way Forward” also concedes the need for the government of Nouri al-Maliki to apply the rule of law equally, the necessity for provincial elections and recognition that local leaders — like Sheik Abdel Sattar — are crucial to rallying the minority Sunni population in defending Iraq from foreign intervention.

Mr. Bush promised more “embedded” advisers to accelerate training Iraqi police and Army units, less onerous “restrictions” on U.S. troops, a desperately needed emphasis on Provincial Reconstruction Teams to improve economic resuscitation and new laws ensuring equitable distribution of Iraq’s vast oil wealth. And though the masters of the mainstream media and our “professional punditry” generally ignored the point — instead of coddling Iran and Syria, as recommended by the Iraq Study Group — the president is choosing to confront them, promising to “destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.”

In a clear signal to Iraq’s neighbors who have been reading U.S. public opinion polls and listening to antiwar activists like Sen. Richard “Dick” Durbin, Illinois Democrat, the commander in chief announced the dispatch of “an additional carrier strike group to the region,” and promised our allies — read Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia — additional Patriot ballistic missile defense systems. And in a straightforward appeal to Congress to relieve the very real stress on our weary military, Mr. Bush urged an increase in “the size of the active Army and Marine Corps so that America has the armed forces we need for the 21st century.”

If all these changes — not just more U.S. troops in Iraq — materialize as President Bush described them Wednesday evening, they could well help to ensure “the survival of a young democracy that is fighting for its life.” Unfortunately, many of the ingredients for success are not in his hands. And therein are the great risks in his “New Way Forward.”

There is no assurance Congress will actually authorize or fund essential increases in our Army and Marine Corps. While Mr. Bush called for “talented American civilians” to deploy overseas to “build democratic institutions,” he did not place the rest of the U.S. government on a war footing. Even now, the only Americans fighting this war are soldiers, sailors, airmen, Guardsmen and Marines.

Though he called on “Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf States” to recognize how threatened they are by “an American defeat in Iraq” there is no indication these governments are willing to accept reality. Dispatching Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the region may help — but only if our “diplomats” refrain from tying success in Iraq to resolving “the Arab-Israeli dispute.” Instead of sending Miss Rice to the Middle East, it might have been more fruitful for her to visit some of our new NATO allies and appeal for more troops — and order most of the State Department to serve in Iraq.

But the greatest vulnerabilities to Mr. Bush’s strategy reside in Baghdad and Washington. By endorsing “Iraqi government plans to take responsibility for security in all of Iraq’s provinces by November,” Mr. Bush has defined a “timeline” and created political expectations here at home that the al-Maliki administration may be unwilling or unable to fulfill.

Though I have documented the bravery of Iraqi police and soldiers defending their own streets from terrorists, their courage has not been matched by elected officials in Baghdad. If Mr. al-Maliki fails to deliver on promises to crack down on the militias, equitably distribute oil wealth, reform his ministries, pay his soldiers and police and “create new jobs” in the next 10 months, the plan will collapse — no matter how many U.S. troops we send to Iraq. At that point, the new leaders in Congress will likely launch an effort as they did in 1974 with Vietnam to cut off funding — and thereby ensure disaster.

Finally, Mr. Bush noted that the days “ahead will demand more patience, sacrifice and resolve.” That’s undoubtedly true. Hopefully, the “Author of Liberty” to whom he appealed will grant at least patience and resolve to those in Congress who have forgotten the words to that great old hymn.

Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of “War Stories” on the Fox News Channel and founder of Freedom Alliance, a foundation offering scholarships to dependents of military personnel killed in action.

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