- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Will George W. Bush’s new strategy for Iraq work? Or will it fail? Those are the conventional questions. But are they the right ones? What might be missing as the Bush administration attempts to correct what has been a series of blunders and mistakes in the effort to bring democracy to Iraq?

For the moment, Bush supporters and critics agree that failure in Iraq, however defined, would be disastrous. However, there is no agreement on a way ahead. Nor is there full understanding of possible dramatic and unintended consequences that may arise in implementing that strategy.

Few Americans realize that the new strategy, as well as the alternative advanced by most Democrats, is based on two mistaken convictions. The first is that Iraq and the Iraqi government are either now or shortly can be made capable of protecting the security of each of its citizens. The second is that a secure, lasting and just peace can be quickly imposed on what is a civil war between and among warring ethnic and sectarian factions. Both convictions are wrong for at least some time to come.

The Iraqi government is neither politically organized nor currently able to govern competently. Sectarian and tribal divisions were replicated in the makeup of parliament. As these divisions exploded into civil war, no mechanism for mediating and moderating them was created. Corruption is the rule, not the exception. Hence, expecting evenhandedness or any justice now is a delusion. Saddam Hussein’s execution and that of his half brother were metaphors for how Iraq’s government functions.

Proponents of the new strategy believe Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki must repudiate and disarm his strongest supporters in the Dawa Party and Muqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army as well as other Shi’ite and Sunni militias. This is akin to asking Mr. Bush to purge his most conservative and religious fundamentalist backers. But irrespective of what Iraqi prime minister can or cannot do, violence will increase as military force is used to “calm” the situation. The worse case could turn Sunnis and Shi’ites irreversibly against the American occupation.

Baghdad is the first test. As an additional 17,500 Americans ooze, not surge, into Baghdad (and some 4,000 into Anbar province), the Iraqi government, army and police must perform. Positive results are needed, and soon, in large part to dampen incandescent dissent on Capitol Hill on both sides of the aisle.

Iraqi security forces are not up to the job. Despite the encouragement of its American trainers, the Iraqi army, according to the Pentagon, is under strength in part due to “ghosts,” that is nonexistent soldiers carried on the roster to pad the payroll. The army is still paid in cash, meaning that soldiers need time off to bring the money home as there is no banking or reliable postal system in place. The issues of force protection, rules of engagement and command structures have not been settled. And the police force is clearly unable to carry out its duties.

Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans in Congress rightly fume. Passing a nonbinding resolution opposing this misnamed surge or legislation that limits forces for Iraq or imposes funding restrictions conceals a far more devastating and looming confrontation between both branches. A large majority of members are highly skeptical of the strategy. Many think it cannot work. But what is the alternative? That suggests a potential constitutional crisis waiting in the wings if conditions deteriorate in Iraq as is surely possible.

Beyond Iraq, Iran remains a crisis point. From Tehran’s perspective, the Bush intent for regime change, backed up by deployment of two carrier strike groups, Patriot missiles (that have no relevance to calming Baghdad) and the appointment of a naval aviator to head Central Command will not be seen as anything except a provocation. Success of the new strategy in Iraq will, from Iran’s view, embolden Mr. Bush. Failure will make him more desperate. In either case, the possibility of a strike against its fledgling nuclear power capacity grows.

From this bleak forecast, two small bright patches emerge. One is Sen. John McCain. The other is Sen. Chuck Hagel. Both have taken principled and correct, although contradictory stands on Iraq. Had Mr. McCain been in the White House in 2002, it is likely more American forces would have been deployed from the outset, along the lines of Colin Powell’s “decisive force” doctrine to win the peace. Had Mr. Hagel been president, we probably would not have gone to war. Saddam might still be alive and in power. But we would be more secure.

It is a pity that, in 2008, the presidential contest will not be between the two candidates who in essence were right. But if Iraq dominates that election, depending how conditions evolve or worsen, a McCain-Hagel or Hagel-McCain ticket could swamp any competition.

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