A Bad Idea that Deserves a Try

The surge isn't going to work. Let's try it anyway.


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.
And so they are well positioned to wait out what they can reasonably expect will be America's last attempt at military pacification. They are also well positioned to undermine and exhaust it. With tentacles reaching deep into Iraq's security agencies and government, they can work both sides of the street, "helping" the Americans by day and terrorizing Iraqis by night. If I were an Iraqi Shiite militant, that is surely what I would do.
Can the Maliki government stop them? Does it even want to? Here Brown's Law (named for Sid Brown, a late Senate staffer) comes into play: If you tell politicians to do something they can't do, they will always find a way not to do it. By asking the Maliki government to suppress and, if necessary, defeat the strongest and fiercest part of its own coalition, the United States is asking the government to commit political, and perhaps also personal, suicide—all for the sake of making a deal with Sunnis who look, to the Shiites, eminently untrustworthy. If you were Maliki, would you do that?
It's understandable, therefore, that Baghdad has responded to the surge plan with a sour ambivalence that is almost palpable. Confronted with an impossible choice between the Sadrists and the Americans, Maliki will find a way not to choose. Then it will be the United States that faces an impossible choice. Either the Pentagon draws back from confronting Shiite militants and effectively abets their low-grade civil war with the Sunnis (the current situation, more or less), or it confronts the Sadrists and other Shiite militants pretty much on its own.
Going to war against the Shiites would be a nightmare, and everyone knows it. American forces could soon find themselves in firefights not only with tens of thousands of armed and angry Shiite militants but also with Iraqi police and army units, in or out of uniform. The Pentagon could win such a conflict militarily, Keane told Rose, "but in my judgment we should avoid it at all costs, and try to resolve it politically."
In effect, Keane appears to be saying that the plan works at an acceptable cost only if the United States can pacify the Shiite militants without forcibly confronting them. To me, and possibly also to the Sadrists, this looks like what gamblers call a bluff.
So why shouldn't the Democratic Congress block such an unpromising strategy? Three reasons point, I think, independently in the same direction.
First, the Constitution. It provides for one commander-in-chief, not 536. A determined president can evade all but the tightest congressional attempts to override his military decisions, and any sufficiently tight congressional strictures are likely to emasculate the presidency and fracture the Congress.
Second, politics. Blocking the president's last-resort plan would divide the country for years to come. Many Republicans would believe that the war was winnable and that Democrats lost it. If the United States is going to leave Iraq, it should do so when even Republicans agree that there is little reason to stay—which they will, if Bush's Hail Mary pass fails.
Third, morality. America has not quite discharged its debt to Iraq. Apart from evacuating as many as possible of those Iraqis who personally aided the American effort, the United States can do nothing for moderate and peace-loving Iraqis if the Baghdad government is determined to press or abet a sectarian agenda. A tragedy will unfold. But if there is any chance that the Iraqi government might yet be salvageable, then the United States owes it to the Iraqis to find out.
Once the surge takes place, Americans are likely to know in a matter of months whether the Maliki government is serious about pacifying Shiite militants, coming to terms with Sunnis, and cleaning up the ministries and security forces. If not, Washington can begin withdrawing forces and shift into damage-control mode—not without guilt, but at least with certainty. © Copyright 2007 National Journal

Jonathan Rauch is a senior writer and columnist for National Journal and a frequent contributor to Reason. The article was originally published by National Journal.