“Major Change Expected in Strategy for Iraq War”

That’s one of the two headlines on the front page of today’s Washington Post. As usual with the Post, however, there is little in the story to suggest that the Bush administration actually will make the kind of major change the article contemplates — partition of the country or withdrawal pursuant to a timetable or enlisting Syria and Iran to help stabilize the country. The best the Post can come up with is a quote by Richard Haass, a former Bush administration official (ages ago, it seems) who predicts “change will come” and the statement of author Robert Kaplan that when he met with the president, Bush was “open to any new direction or tactic except withdrawal.”
I think Kaplan is on the money. Bush probably is open to any new idea other than withdrawal. And he should be, considering the limitations of the approach we’re using now. But I wouldn’t expect a major change for the sake of a major change or for political purposes. Recall that last year at this time, many here in Washington were predicting that 2006 would see a major reduction in troop levels to coincide with the election. That didn’t happen because the president concluded it was the wrong way to go. And he will have less incentive in 2007 to change course than he did in 2006. Thus, I would expect “major change” only if Bush can be persuaded that a new course will better achieve his goals.
That will be a hard sell. Partition is probably not practical because the Sunnis and the Shiites are intermingled. How do you partition Baghdad, which represents one-fifth of the country and a bigger proportion than that of the country’s troubles? And wouldn’t the Shiite portion of a partitioned Iraq be drawn to Iran out of fear of hostilities with the Sunni portion? And how would our long-time ally Turkey feel about an autonomous Kurdish state on its border?
Nor can I imagine Bush turning to Iran and Syria to help us solve the problem. Right now, we may not be winning in Iraq, but we’re not losing either. Outsourcing the problem to our enemies would represent a double defeat — we’d lose in Iraq and strengthen Iran immeasurably.
Sending more troops, though not an option considered by the Post, may have merit. If re-deploying so many troops to Baghdad has led to a resurgence of the enemy in Anbar province, then sending a large new force to crush the enemy in that province seems like a good idea. However, it’s not clear that even with a substantially larger force we could ever bring peace to Baghdad, a city of five million that resembles Los Angeles in size, through military means. It’s also doubtful that the long term commitment of substantially more troops is politically sustainable.
Kaplan and the Post suggest that even maintaining current troop levels is politically unsustainable. To be sure, strong Democratic gains next month would increase the pressure on the administration to begin withdrawing troops. Such gains would not only increase the number of anti-war Dems but would also scare more Republicans into questioning the war. However, if the president wants to hang tough, it’s unlikely that Congress would force him to cut and run, by withholding funds, for example. Certainly, most Republican Senators would be taking a huge risk with their base if they turned on the president to that extent. And presidential politics on the Democrat side might counsel against an all-out struggle with Bush on this issue. Would the Democrats prefer to be the author of a cut-and-run defeat in Iraq or would they rather still have a war to beat Republicans up with in 2008?

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