Social Studies January 2007

A Bad Idea That Deserves a Try

Even though the Bush Surge is unlikely to work, Congress should not try to stop it. His plan is worth a try.

President Bush, characteristically, is not leveling with the public about the risks he is taking with his plan to "surge" more U.S. forces into Iraq. Jack Keane, a retired Army vice chief of staff and a leading proponent of the strategy, is more frank. Here is what he told Charlie Rose earlier this month:

"If we have to go into Sadr City"—a Shiite stronghold in Baghdad—"what will happen will be rather dramatic. The Badr Corps and the Jaish al-Mahdi [two major Shiite militias], which are not aligned, will align. And they'll also be able to align the vigilante groups, which are essentially protecting the neighborhoods and causing some mischief and havoc. They'll all get aligned, and we'll have to contend with about 70,000 people under arms in one of the heavily and most densely populated areas of Baghdad."

Read that again. Then repeat after me: Uh-oh.

Painfully aware that the Iraq war has given commentators a lesson in humility, I offer the following assessment with no certainty at all but with the hope of at least contributing to clarity: The Bush Surge is unlikely to work, but Congress should not try to stop it.

The surge appears really to be a bundle of four policies. The military surge itself would introduce about 21,500 additional U.S. troops into the theater. By itself, that seems too little, too late. Hope for success hinges on a second element, a tactical change that is meant to improve the troops' military effectiveness: Instead of clearing areas of insurgents and militias and then handing them over to (unreliable) Iraqi forces, the Army and Marines—along with Iraqis—will stay put and hold the territory they clear. The idea is to make the population feel safe enough to reject militia protection and support the government. Then, in theory, the government will establish its authority and will have a fighting chance.

This theory is plausible, but it works only if security is provided sustainably, not temporarily. No one will defy the warlords and death squads if they are still lurking around the corner. And everyone knows that the Americans are not going to police the streets of Baghdad for long. If Iraqi security forces do not step in soon and provide nonsectarian law and order, the surge buys nothing more than a lull, if that.

The third element is a new commitment to jobs and economic reconstruction. Here the idea is to provide productive work for the young men whom military action will drive from the streets. Again, the theory is plausible. But economic development is a slow-acting medicine. It is necessary but not sufficient.

That leaves the fourth element of the strategy, by a long shot the most difficult and important: Induce the Iraqi government to get off the fence and decisively confront Shiite militias and ethnic-cleansers. This is crucial. Unless the government shows that it can and will pacify sectarian Shiite militants whose death squads radicalize Sunnis and intimidate moderate Shiites, the downward spiral of sectarian war seems guaranteed to continue.

The problem, of course, is that the Iraqi government is a sectarian Shiite coalition, and its parliamentary stability depends on a bloc controlled by Moktada al-Sadr, the most volatile and powerful of the country's Shiite warlords. In other words, the government cannot confront the Shiite warlords without, in effect, confronting itself—and possibly splitting and disintegrating.

Think of the Bush plan, then, not primarily as a military escalation, a change in tactics, or a reconstruction effort, but first and foremost as a gun to the head of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki's Iraqi government. "You talk like a unity government," the U.S. is telling Maliki, "but now we are putting 21,500 men on the ground to see that you act like one."

In the past, the Iraqi government has blocked American forces from confronting Shiite militants. This time, according to U.S. military planners, there will be no such constraints. Americans will treat Shiite militants as toughly as they do the Sunnis—and, more to the point, the U.S. will expect Iraq's Shiite-dominated police and army to cooperate.

And if they don't? Well, the plan has some fairly obvious flaws. One is that the gun at Maliki's temple targets the United States, too. America's sole leverage is the implicit threat to leave if the Iraqi government does not make good on its commitments. For U.S. forces to leave is, of course, exactly what Shiite militants and their Iranian allies want. They hope to send the United States packing and then get on with the business of ethnically cleansing Baghdad and setting up a Shiastan in southern Iraq. That could set off a full-blown civil war, but it is one that the Shiite militants, with their numerical majority and support from Tehran, think they could win.

Presented by

Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and National Journal and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In