INSS Insight: How New is Bush’s “New Course”?
January 14, 2007 No. 7
How New is Bush’s “New Course”?
President George W. Bush announced a “new strategy” in Iraq: a substantial improvement in the security situation in order to provide time for political arrangements to stabilize the country. The main points in his program are:
According to President Bush, the more popular alternative of reducing American force levels in Iraq would bring about the collapse of Iraqi government, cause more bloodshed, and make it necessary for the American army to remain even longer. At this critical juncture, he insists that support must instead be increased in order to break the cycle of violence. The coming year will undoubtedly see much violence, but, he argues, the new strategy will ultimately succeed. Any victory will not resemble tactical victories of the past. However, it will produce a democratic Iraq, certainly not perfect in every respect but one that can nevertheless fight terrorism rather than serve a sanctuary for it. “The challenge in the Middle East,” says Bush, “is the decisive ideological struggle of our time,” and the new strategy is meant to ensure the future of an emerging democracy in region of critical importance to the United States.
What the President did not say was that the troop reinforcement will be brief. Nor did he set out a rigid timetable for the achievement of the headline goals by the Iraqi government. Nor did he specifically warn that failure to meet them would lead to the withdrawal of US forces. Bush did not stipulate that the response to Syrian and Iranian activities would be confined to Iraq and he did not repeat the well-worn phrase that “failure is not an option,” referring instead to “victory” only in the context of lowering expectations.
Is this really a “new course”? The program does shift the main military effort to Baghdad and it does intensify the effort to transfer the main burden to the Iraqis. It also makes clear, for the first time, that the American commitment is not open-ended. Nevertheless, little in the strategy is really new. During the past three years, there have been several operations to clean out Baghdad (and other centers of violence). All these have failed. What the new program promises is basically more of the same. Bush was aware of this and has therefore argued that the chances of success are better this time because the Shi’ite-dominated government is showing a determination to fight violent elements in both confessional camps and is allocating enough forces to do so.
However, there are still two major obstacles to success. The first is opposition by the Democrat-controlled Congress. The Congressional leadership, backed up by voters, has demanded that the President not send more troops to Iraq. But while Democrats are united in their opposition to Bush, they do not agree on an alternative policy. The moderates among them will settle for non-binding resolutions and critical hearings in committee; a few may also try to delay the program with oversight and control measures. More radical opposition forces, however, have already suggested trying to block Bush by passing legislation or wielding the “power of the purse” (the program will cost about $7 billion). Because the Constitution gives the President considerable discretion in using armed force, and because most Democrats won’t want to risk be labeled as “unpatriotic,” the President will probably prevail over Congress.
The second and more serious obstacle is the Iraqi government, on which the success of the program actually rests. Bush hopes that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will now have both the will and the capacity to act forcefully against all the sources of violence in the country. That is a very optimistic expectation, since it implies that the Iraqi government will not only confront the Shi’ite militias but also act to conciliate the Sunni minority by implementing the headline goals largely intended to cultivate its acquiescence. Thus far, the government has shown no sign of doing either. In fact, even the decision to send more American troops to Baghdad appears not to be favored by the Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi government – because it views an American buildup and a tightening of American security control as contradicting its own desire to gain sole authority over Iraq as quickly as possible. Besides, many Iraqi units are actually part of the problem rather than part of the solution. In brief, Bush will almost certainly discover that the Iraqi government is a very weak reed on which to lean.
Although the President has staked everything on a bet that Iraqis do want to coexist peacefully under a government determined to transcend confessional considerations, there is little evidence that his reading of Iraqi reality is more accurate now than it was when the US first took control of the country in March 2003.