President George W. Bush’s plan to “surge” more than 20,000 additional U.S. troops into Iraq without any deadline for withdrawal has garnered little support, except from neoconservatives and their increasingly isolated allies in the hawkish wings of the Republican and Democratic parties. Not only are the new Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress lining up in opposition to the surge plan, but a growing number of Republican lawmakers-including some staunch Bush loyalists-are also voicing serious reservations. For the neoconservatives, on the other hand, the only problem with Bush’s plan is that it doesn’t go far enough, arguing in their own recently released plan for “victory” that troop levels should be boosted by more than a third.
A good example of the opposition Bush is facing is Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN), an erstwhile supporter of the war who faces reelection in 2008 and just returned from visiting Iraq. He told the Los Angeles Times last week: “Baghdad needs reconciliation between Shiites and Sunnis. It doesn’t need more Americans in the crosshairs.”
Even retired Lt. Col. Oliver North, a far-right talk-show host who gained fame as the White House coordinator of what became the Iran-Contra affair 20 years ago, reported that his recent interviews with officers and soldiers in Iraq persuaded him that adding more troops to the 140,000 already deployed there would be a mistake.
But the tepid support for what critics call an “escalation” has not dampened the enthusiasm of the neoconservatives. At the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) last week-with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) in attendance-neoconservatives unveiled a new report: “Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq.” The AEI report argues that substantially increasing U.S. troop strength in Iraq is essential to avoiding a defeat that could lead to “regional conflict, humanitarian catastrophe, and increased global terrorism.”
The two senators, who recently returned from a fact-finding trip to Iraq, have been heavily criticized on both the left and right for their support of the surge plan. “McCain and Lieberman talked to many of the same officers and senior NCOs [non-commissioned officers] I covered for FOX News during my most recent trip to Iraq,” North asserted in his syndicated column last Friday. “Not one of the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Guardsmen, or Marines I interviewed told me that they wanted more U.S. boots on the ground. In fact, nearly all expressed just the opposite. ‘We don’t need more American troops, we need more Iraqi troops’ was a common refrain. They are right.
“A ‘surge’ or ‘targeted increase in U.S. troop strength’ or whatever the politicians want to call dispatching more combat troops to Iraq isn’t the answer. Adding more trainers and helping the Iraqis to help themselves is. Sending more U.S. combat troops is simply sending more targets,” North wrote.
Like the administration’s surge idea, the new neoconservative-supported report, written by AEI scholar Frederick Kagan, whose brother Robert and father Donald are both influential figures in neoconservative circles, calls for a sustained increase in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, arguing that “victory is still an option” if the nation remains committed. Among the AEI plan’s proposals: a “surge of seven Army brigades and Marine regiments to support clear-and-hold operations” beginning this spring, which would be aimed at securing “the Iraqi population and contain[ing] the rising violence”; lengthening the tours of ground troops and increasing deployments of National Guard forces; making a “dramatic increase in reconstruction aid for Iraq”; and mobilizing military industry “to provide replacement equipment” for troops.
The AEI report warns that the number of additional troops that Bush plans to send to Iraq will be inadequate. “We are going to be very uncomfortable with any force level that is below” five more brigades in Baghdad and two in Al Anbar, said Kagan at the conference. “We are not really prepared to compromise on that.” Kagan had previously called for adding at least 50,000 troops to gain control of Baghdad alone. This position was echoed by other neoconservative-inclined commentators, including the popular blogger Andrew Sullivan, who charged that Bush’s surge plan was “anemic.” Writing immediately after Bush’s Wednesday address, Sullivan wrote in his Daily Dish blog: “If the president tonight had outlined a serious attempt to grapple with this new situation-a minimum of 50,000 new troops as a game-changer-then I’d eagerly be supporting him. But he hasn’t. 21,500 U.S. troops is once again, I fear, just enough troops to lose.”
The release of the AEI report represents the latest effort by neoconservatives to win back momentum lost during the past two years as the war they vociferously championed has gone steadily downhill. Their declining influence was underscored by the Bush administration’s decision early last year to agree to allow Secretary of State and Bush family confidant James Baker, an early opponent of the war, to produce a new plan that could extricate the United States from Iraq. Baker’s Iraq Study Group (ISG), which he co-chaired with former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-IN), concluded in a long-awaited final report released in December that there was “no magic bullet” that could solve the debacle in Iraq. It argued that the United States needed to approach Iraq’s neighbors, including Syria and Iran, as part of a “diplomatic offensive” aimed at easing tension in the region. And although it called for a short-term increase in the number of U.S. soldiers in Iraq, the increase would be largely devoted to training Iraqi soldiers, with the goal of bringing U.S. troops home by early 2008. (For more on the ISG, see Leon Hadar, “The Baker-Hamilton Recommendations: Too Little, Too Late?” Right Web analysis, December 12, 2006.)
The Baker-Hamilton report seemed to provide impetus for the neoconservatives, spurring AEI to create a study group of its own to counter the ideas of the ISG. The AEI shadow study, the Iraq Planning Group, was led by Frederick Kagan and retired Gen. Jack Keane and included about a dozen other AEI scholars (most notably Michael Rubin, Thomas Donnelly, Danielle Pletka, Gary Schmitt, and Reuel Marc Gerecht). Other participants included several retired army officers as well as Michael Eisenstadt, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Responding to the tremendous attention garnered by Baker’s ISG, the AEI group hurriedly put out in mid-December an early version of Kagan’s “Choosing Victory” report, a 52-page bullet-pointed PDF, “easily translatable into the Pentagon’s indigenous language of Power Point,” as Spencer Ackerman of the American Prospect derisively commented. The authors were then given the opportunity to present their plan to Bush and five other national security higher-ups.
The neoconservative media machine quickly got into gear to champion the AEI plan. “Alone among proposals for Iraq, the new Keane-Kagan strategy has a chance to succeed,” declared the Weekly Standard, which, like the AEI fellows involved in the Iraq Planning Group, pushed for going to war in Iraq.
However, despite the neoconservatives’ efforts to build support for a surge, it seems clear that the public, unlike during the buildup to the war in Iraq, is disinclined to rally behind the effort. According to recent public opinion polls, nearly three out of four U.S. respondents now say they disapprove of Bush’s handling of Iraq, while confidence in his overall leadership has fallen to record lows. Despite having ostentatiously devoted most of the past month devising a new strategy for Iraq, a CBS poll last week found that the public does not believe Bush has a “clear plan” for dealing with the situation there.
The same poll showed that the war in Iraq is also considered far and away the most important priority that people want the new Democrat-led Congress to take up, a finding that no doubt encouraged the two Democratic leaders, House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), to announce in a letter to Bush released last Friday that they will oppose any increase in U.S. troops in Iraq.
“Adding more combat troops will only endanger more Americans and stretch our military to the breaking point for no strategic gain,” wrote the two leaders, citing recent testimony to that effect by senior U.S. military officers, including the outgoing commanders of U.S. forces in Iraq and the Middle East.
“After nearly four years of combat, tens of thousands of U.S. casualties, and over $300 billion, it is time to bring the war to a close. We, therefore, strongly encourage you to reject any plans that call for our getting our troops any deeper into Iraq,” they added in what a number of political analysts described as a surprisingly strong stand, given traditional Democratic fears of being depicted as weak on defense.
“This is a great statement,” said Jim Cason, an analyst at the anti-war group the Friends Committee on National Legislation, in an interview with the Inter Press Service. He noted, however, that short of denying funds for the war, Congress has few tools with which to stop Bush from going ahead with a deployment.
One such tool, however, could be Bush’s anticipated request for $100 billion, in addition to the $75 billion already approved by last year’s Republican-led Congress, to fund U.S. military operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan in fiscal 2007.
While no one expects the Democrats to oppose the budget request as a whole, the critical issue is whether they will attach conditions to the defense appropriation. Cason said Democrats should at least impose conditions requiring Bush to adopt key recommendations of the Iraq Study Group and set a timetable for withdrawal. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) announced a day before the president’s announcement his intention to introduce legislation that would force the administration to get congressional approval for any additional troop deployments and funding.
Even before his Wednesday address, Bush had all but rejected the ISG’s most important recommendations, including the call to withdraw virtually all U.S. combat forces from Iraq within 15 months and to engage Syria and Iran as part of a regional effort to stabilize Iraq. But the ISG’s recommendations have been largely endorsed by the Democratic leadership and by moderate-and even some right-wing-Republicans, pointing to the possibility of a relatively strong bipartisan majority in Congress opposed to escalating the war.
“To be successful, the opposition has to include some Republicans, and it’s clear that more Republicans are challenging the president’s Iraq war strategy,” according to Cason, who noted that some Republican aides have reported a substantial rise in anti-war mail from constituents since the Democrats’ victory in the November elections.
Aside from constituent pressure, Republican lawmakers are also likely to be impressed by a recent poll of U.S. military personnel conducted by the Military Times that found only about one in three officers and enlisted service members approve of Bush’s handling of the war and that nearly three in four said they believe the armed forces are stretched too thin to be effective.
Despite the growing opposition, the neoconservatives remain undaunted, with some extreme elements of the political faction urging more dramatic action than a mere troop surge. In a January 9 “Memo to the President,” the hardline Center for Security Policy commended Bush for heeding the advice of those who reflect the president’s “laudable determination to prevail.” The memo then argued that any modifications to the plan in Iraq also must have as a goal taking on Iran and the threat of “Islamofascism”: “Your new strategy must make clear that it is being designed to counter Islamofascist Iran both in terms of its subversion in Iraq and with a view to working with the Iranian people to bring down a government that they hate as much as we do.”
Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a Right Web contributing writer. Michael Flynn is the director of the Right Web project at the International Relations Center (rightweb.irc-online.org).