Last November's congressional elections dealt US President George W. Bush a sharp rebuff over his Iraq policy. Shortly after the election, the Iraq Study Group (ISG) offered a bipartisan formula for the gradual withdrawal of American troops. But Bush rejected this, and persists in speaking of victory in Iraq - though it is unclear what that now means. Perhaps because Iraq will define his legacy, he has proven reluctant to let go at a point when his policy appears to be a disaster.
Now Bush will increase the number of American troops in Baghdad and Anbar Province and try to stabilize both the rising sectarian civil war and the Sunni insurgency. He has removed generals John Abizaid and George Casey, who were skeptical of a troop "surge," and moved Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who was supposed to negotiate a political agreement in Iraq, to the United Nations, as the United States' representative.
A number of the Democratic lawmakers who control the new Congress disagree with this approach. Some Democratic activists seek an immediate withdrawal and are pressing for Congress to cut off funding for the war, but that is unlikely. Congress is reluctant to be portrayed as failing to support troops in the field; while they will criticize, they will not block Bush's plan.
Bush has long claimed that the number of troops in Iraq was a military decision and that he simply followed the advice of his generals, but now that is clearly not the case. Ironically, there may once have been a point at which a large increase in troops might have made a difference. In April and May 2003, polls showed that a majority of Iraqis welcomed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. But the Bush administration failed to control rioting, disbanded the Iraqi Army, and allowed the security situation to deteriorate.
In such chaos, it was difficult to do the reconstruction and development work that could have made Iraqi lives better and attracted support. It is not easy for a soldier to construct a school or clinic when he is being fired upon, or for Iraqi moderates to risk their lives by being supportive when they have no protection against insurgents.
Many military professionals foresaw this problem. The US Army's then-chief of staff, General Eric Shinseki, warned that although it would be possible to win the war with the 160,000 troops that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wanted to deploy, it would take double that number to win the peace. But because Rumsfeld wanted to prove a point about transforming American military strategy, and his neoconservative advisers had ideological blinders that distorted their appraisal of Iraqi reality, Shinseki's advice was rejected. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz testified to Congress that Shinseki's estimate of the number of troops required was "wildly off the mark." In fact, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were the ones off the mark. Now both are gone, and Bush is turning to troop increases.
Too little, too late. Is there any reason to believe that an additional five brigades will succeed in stabilizing Baghdad now when similar efforts have failed in the past? The new American operational commander in Iraq, Lt. General Raymond Odierno, says that the new efforts will be more evenhanded among Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods, and American troops will remain alongside Iraqi troops in areas that have been cleared. He hopes that in a few months he can withdraw American troops to the periphery of Baghdad and leave the policing of the capital to Iraqi forces. But this assumes that Iraqi forces are up to the task, and that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government, which rests upon Shiite militia support, can play a competent and evenhanded role.
Bush administration officials argue that the new plan is "not an open-ended commitment: We are putting real, specific requirements and expectations on the Iraqi government." Among the political benchmarks are provincial elections, enactment of an oil law that distributes oil wealth in a way that benefits the Sunnis, and reform of de-Baathification policy, which has been so costly to those who worked in the Iraqi government under Saddam. But it may be too late for political compromise, and the Maliki government may not be capable of a broad non-sectarian policy.
If Bush's new military plan is a temporary step to buy time to move in the direction of the ISG's proposals of training Iraqi forces and gradually withdrawing American forces, there may be something to be said for it as one last chance. But this is only true if accompanied by the diplomatic advice that the ISG also suggested.
It is too late to create a democracy in Iraq. At best, the overthrow of Saddam removed a threatening dictator, and substituted a tyranny of the majority for the tyranny of a minority. But the price has been high in terms of Iraqi lives lost in sectarian fighting. The goal now is regional stability. Each of Iraq's neighbors has its own interests, but none will benefit from chaos there, which would increase Iran's influence, encourage Kurdish separatism, and bolster Sunni terrorist movements that could spill over into Jordan, Kuwait, Syria, and Saudi Arabia.
The US cannot leave Iraq precipitously, but neither can it solve the problem on its own. Establishing a contact group of Iraq's neighbors to help set rules of the road for stabilization and containment will be an important step. Iraq is not susceptible to a military solution. Only more politics and diplomacy can salvage US policy.
Joseph S. Nye, a former US assistant secretary of defense and director of the National Security Agency, is a professor at Harvard University and author of "Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics." THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).