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Baghdad or Bust

By Tom Bevan

Though a majority of the American people and members of Congress appear to have given up any hope of achieving success in Iraq, the Bush administration has not. Despite opposition, the White House has been slowly but surely moving ahead, playing what amounts to the last card in its hand on Iraq.

That play, for lack of a better word, boils down to a new plan currently underway to secure the Iraqi capital. It's a plan that was conceived out of necessity last year as the administration reviewed all possible options for achieving success in Iraq. Ultimately, as a senior administration official told me in an interview on Tuesday, the conclusion was reached that "the risks associated with not stabilizing Baghdad were unacceptable."

Those risks include the Iraqi police and military forces being overrun by escalating sectarian violence and eventually collapsing, followed in relatively short order by the fall of the Iraqi government. (Beyond that, discussion of the potential risks and consequences to the region and to the United States enter the catastrophic.)

The reality is that without security in the capital there can be little, if any, political progress in Iraq. And yet, to the administration's chagrin, over the past few weeks critics have railed against the president's proposed "surge" and demanded a political solution in Iraq without putting forth a single plan to deal with securing Baghdad to facilitate such a solution.

Instead, the discussion in the halls of Congress these days is all about finding ways to not only limit and/or prevent the increase of troops needed to secure Baghdad, but also to lessen U.S. force strength there either through withdrawal or "redeployment."

However, the idea that pulling U.S. troops out of Baghdad will somehow improve the situation or force the Iraqis into taking responsibility for quelling sectarian bloodshed, while simultaneously crafting some grand political compromise, seems shallow on its face. By its very nature, then, the current discussion in Congress isn't about achieving success but limiting failure.

Ironically enough, all of this is taking place amid some signs of progress in Iraq. Since the president's Jan. 10 announcement of the "new way forward' in Iraq, there have been positive developments on the security front: with the assent of the Iraqi government U.S. forces now have more flexible rules of engagement; there has been a lessening of sectarian death squad activity; and the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has taken flight, reportedly to Iran.

Perhaps most importantly, the administration has served notice to Iran directly by targeting Qods force agents operating within Iraq and by moving a second U.S. battle carrier group into the region. "We've gotten their attention," the senior Bush administration official said, adding that Iran appears to be in the process of "recalibrating its presence" in Iraq.

There's been political progress as well. On Monday, the Iraqi cabinet announced it had come to an agreement on a draft resolution for the sharing of oil revenues, one of the major political stumbling blocks facing the fledgling coalition government.

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the United States will participate in a "neighbors" conference in March that will include talks with both Syria and Iran, as well as the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. Engaging diplomatically with Iran and Syria represents a significant shift for the Bush administration, and is something officials say they acceded to at the request of the Iraqi government.

In the end, however, it all comes back to securing Baghdad. The administration goes out of its way to stress how different its new approach is. Under the direction of Gen. David Petraeus, the new plan breaks the Iraqi capital down into 11 districts and establishes 41 local stations where the increased number of U.S. and Iraqi forces will begin clearing out insurgents and building a sustained presence among the population. Extra emphasis will be placed on stabilizing "mixed" Sunni-Shia neighborhoods that have been particularly volatile.

So far, the administration is cautiously optimistic but recognizes that initial indications are often like "straws in the wind," while meaningful trends take weeks and months to develop. The new plan to secure Baghdad is still in the beginning stages and will take more time to fully staff and execute - the official I spoke with likened it to the effect of "a tide rolling in" - and while the administration is hopeful they will see continued improvement as implementation continues, time is the one thing the Bush administration does not have. The Guardian reported yesterday that an elite team of counter-insurgency experts in Iraq, dubbed the "Baghdad Brain-Trust," has advised Gen. Petraeus that the United States has six months, at most, to turn things around.

And so we've come to the moment of truth in this war: secure Baghdad or bust.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics. Email: tom@realclearpolitics.com

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