It’s a sound plan,
but Bush can’t sell it
By Brad Warthen
Editorial Page Editor
WE HAVE in place much of what we need to succeed in Iraq. We have a new, comprehensive plan that corrects many of the mistakes of the past three years. We have new leadership on the ground, in the form of a general who has shown that he knows what it takes to win this war.
We just need a better salesman.
If you saw and heard President Bush’s address to the nation live Wednesday night, and listened with an open mind, you probably still went away saying, “Huh? How is this going to improve the situation?”
I’m glad that wasn’t my first impression. I missed the live broadcast. And before watching a replay of the Bush speech, I called U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham.
George W. Bush has two, and only two, virtues as our commander in chief: He understands, on some fundamental, gut level, how important it is that we succeed. And he won’t give up. Those are fine, but they’re not enough.
We need someone in charge who is able to communicate to the nation why we need to be in Iraq, how we need to proceed, and why that course of action can work. He needs to persuade fair-minded people to believe him, and to follow.
Of course, he has to have a good plan to start with. If I had heard him tell about it first, I would doubt that he does.
In fairness, it helps if you start by asking the right question. The president was trying to talk to a nation that polls tell him is asking, “Why on Earth are you sending more troops?” I asked Sen. Graham, “Why on Earth do you think 20,000 will be enough?”
Sen. Graham and his friend and ally Sen. John McCain have maintained that we need more troops in Iraq. The senator from Arizona has insisted that it needed to be a lot more. But Sen. Graham had indicated he was pleased with this smaller “surge.” Why? Because it’s a part, and not the largest part, of a comprehensive new approach that stresses diplomatic, economic and political initiatives.
The military mission is specific: Put in enough troops to provide security in Baghdad and increase our muscle over on the Syrian border, in Anbar province.
Here are some critical points related by Sen. Graham that the president failed to get across:
- Tremendous pressure is being placed on the Shia-dominated Iraqi government to ensure Sunni leaders that their people will get their cut of the country’s oil wealth. Assure them that their tribe will not starve out in the cold, and you remove ordinary Sunni Arab insurgents’ motivation to kill Shiites. That removes the cloak of legitimacy from the Shiite militias, which their communities will no longer see as essential to their protection. Extremists — Shia and Sunni — become isolated. Neighbors start dropping a dime on IED factories. We destroy those, and we largely eliminate the cause of 80 percent of current U.S. casualties.
- None of the above can happen without the capital being secure. How would such a small surge make that happen? It would double the U.S. combat capability in the capital, a force that would be multiplied by embedding the U.S. troops in the Iraqi units that will have the job of actually kicking down doors and cleaning up militant neighborhoods (one idea taken from the Iraq Study Group). As the president did mention, those neighborhoods will no longer be “off limits”; the Maliki government can no longer protect the Sadr militia.
- The brigade sent to Anbar would have interdiction as a large part of its mission. Amazingly, we have never shut down the terrorist superhighway flowing out of Syria; this would address that.
- The pivotal role of the new U.S. commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus. Sen. Graham describes the plan not as what President Bush wants to do, but what Gen. Petraeus wants to do. He doesn’t say Congress needs to listen to the president. He says “Listen to this new general; give him a chance to make the case.”
Who is David Petraeus? He’s a West Point graduate with a Ph.D. from Princeton. He’s the former commander of the 101st Airborne Division. Under his command, the 101st was described by the author of Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq as the one Army outfit that was doing it right — providing security in its area, and winning hearts and minds. The general himself is the author of the Army’s new manual on counterinsurgency, which applies practical tactics that work.
The president didn’t do an awful job in his speech. He explained how things went wrong, emphasizing the critical bombing of the Golden Mosque. He mentioned increased diplomatic efforts, the fact that we need to hold as well as clear dangerous areas, and that troops will now go wherever they need to go to get the job done. He let us know that even if things go perfectly, there will be more casualties.
But a wartime president who has lost the people’s trust to the degree that he has needed to go a lot farther, and the president did not. He failed to draw a clear, bright line between his past failure and a future in which we have a realistic expectation of success.
Why the president didn’t even mention the name “Petraeus,” explaining what a departure he was from the discredited Rumsfeld approach, is beyond me.
After talking to Sen. Graham, I feel a lot better about our future in Iraq. I’m still not positive that six brigades is enough, but I now have sound reasons to believe we’re finally on a better track.
I’ve put a recording of that interview on my blog. I urge you to go listen to it — and don’t miss the senator’s column on the facing page.
For that, and observations on last week’s inaugural activities, go to http://blogs.thestate.com/bradwarthensblog/.