It’s fourth-and-long in Iraq — so Bush punts

In his address last week on "the way forward in Iraq," President Bush omitted the most important things you need to know.

Most Americans want a strategy that will stabilize Iraq and let us draw down troops without greater chaos. The Petraeus-Crocker testimony to Congress offered tactics that may keep Iraq from crumbling further. But it was up to the president to present a strategy to hold Iraq together and prevent greater radicalization of the entire region.

Instead, Bush punted. Far from offering a "way forward," his Iraq program will — at best — keep the status quo until the mess is dumped on the next president in 2009.

What Bush failed to tell you is where things really stand in Iraq and what must be done to avoid future disasters. The President didn’t mention that the upcoming force reductions he announced are not "a return on success," as he claims. They are happening because the Army and Marines have run out of forces.

Ever since the surge began, top military commanders made clear that the 30,000 extra troops were dangerously over-stretching the forces. When I was in Baghdad in June, every senior officer I spoke to said those troops would have to start leaving by March-April of 2008. Otherwise, the military could not maintain its already onerous rotation schedule.


There is heavy and open debate among top military brass about maintaining even post-surge levels. So the president insults the public by pretending the cuts are due to military success. Many commanders believe that even further troop drawdowns will be necessary.

Bush also failed to admit that the basic premise of the surge is failing. The thesis went like this: If the extra troops could tamp down the most egregious sectarian attacks, Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite factions would be able to reconcile.

The extra U.S. troops "have made progress "within Sunni and Shiite areas. Extra Marines and U.S. funds have encouraged the movement of Sunni sheikhs against al-Qaida in Iraq (even though this movement started before the new troops arrived).

But the touted progress in Anbar province (which will continue despite the assassination on Thursday of a key sheikh) doesn’t help resolve the key problem the Americans face. These Sunni sheikhs and other Sunni dissident groups now working with U.S. troops against al-Qaida are still hostile to the Shiite-led government. That hostility is mutual.

Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker are trying to convince the central government to reach out to Sunnis; they are also trying to persuade both sides to fight for resources and power through the political system rather than with guns.

But this presumes Iraqis can be convinced to see their struggle as a rational political competition rather than an existential, zero-sum battle. So far there are few signs that Shiite or Sunni leaders can shift to this kind of thinking. Unless they do, the surge strategy leaves U.S. troops standing between two Iraqi sects that are preparing for a bigger civil war when we exit. And we are now arming both sides.

I don’t believe, as do many Democrats, that setting a timeline for U.S. withdrawal will force Iraqis toward political compromise. Just the opposite: A timeline will act like a starting gun that signals all sides should prepare for the bigger battles to come.

But the current surge strategy contains no levers, either, to make reconciliation happen. Iraqis are clearly unable to compromise by themselves, and the administration has had no success in applying pressure. Nor does training Iraqi forces to replace ours offer a good solution; without political reconciliation, those forces will split by sect as soon as American troops leave.


So the most glaring omission in Bush’s speech is his failure to address the central question: What is the U.S. strategy to foster political progress inside Iraq, the kind of progress that will enable American troops to go home?

There is only one strategy that holds any hope of pressing Iraqi leaders to reach consensus: an international diplomatic offensive, with full U.S. backing, which draws in the permanent security council members, European Union, and all of Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran and Syria.

The Iraqi Study Group recommended this, and it has bipartisan support in Congress. As Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., put it to me: "A regional strategy (for Iraq) is imperative and long overdue."

So why has Bush failed to formulate such a strategy? When he introduced the surge last January, the President declared that "we will use America’s full diplomatic resources to rally support for Iraq." Yet the administration has only made faint gestures at international diplomacy, and Bush gave it short shrift in his Iraq address.

Perhaps the President believes that promoting diplomacy involves a tacit admission that his policies have failed. Perhaps he’s still reluctant to engage more deeply with Damascus or Tehran. Perhaps he believes his own spin.

Yet his surge strategy — without a major diplomatic push — is bound for a failure that will become obvious as we approach the 2008 ballot. A diplomatic surge is the only strategy that holds promise of producing real bipartisan support in Congress. It is the only approach that might push Iraqi factions together and enable a serious U.S. drawdown.

This is what the President didn’t and apparently won’t tell the American public. But can no one tell him?

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her e-mail address is

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