Too little, too late

The war in Iraq is a bloody sectarian conflict in which Shiite death squads, with covert backing of the Iraqi government, are battling Sunni militia in an increasingly bitter and escalating struggle for land, power and revenge. It’s a conflict with no military solution, and no “surge” of 20,000 troops is going to stop it. You know it, we know it, and by this time we’re pretty sure even President Bush knows it.

So why is Bush still sending 20,000 new troops to Iraq?

To save face? To stall for time? To create the illusion that he is still in control and that some ill-defined “victory” is still within reach? Or all of the above?

For some time it’s been clear that Bush’s intentions are to pass Iraq on to the next administration and to let the next president be labeled as the one who “lost” the war by pulling out American troops. We know, thanks to a leaked memo written by then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, that even before the election the Bush administration privately had concluded that the only realistic option was to “recast the U.S. military mission and … go minimalist”—in other words, start bringing the troops home.

Yet publicly, Bush continued his “stay the course” rhetoric, and it’s easy to see why. More than any president in U.S. history, Bush chose to start this war, acting unilaterally over the objections of key allies and advisers and the protests of millions. To leave now would be a clear admission that his policy decisions were misguided, unsuccessful and a tragedy for the American and Iraqi people. It’s much better, from Bush’s perspective, to do as little as possible and let the next president make the tough calls.

Clearly, sending in 20,000 troops isn’t going to change anything at this point. To put the number in perspective, consider that in the first Gulf War President George H.W. Bush sent a coalition force of about 500,000 into battle with the assignment of pushing Saddam Hussein’s army out of Kuwait. In contrast, the present administration invaded Iraq with only 150,000 troops, even though they had the much more difficult assignment of ousting Hussein and occupying the country. At present, there are about 130,000 American soldiers in Iraq and, according to Pentagon estimates, it would take something like 100,000 more just to stabilize Baghdad.

If some sort of military “victory” was still possible in Iraq and Bush was serious about attaining it, he’d be calling for a draft and sending in 300,000 troops. He’s not going to do that because he knows the American people long since have concluded that the situation in Iraq has passed the point of no return and because the problems there simply can’t be solved by military force.

No one can stop Bush, as commander in chief, from sending in more troops, but Congress holds the purse strings and can set the conditions for ongoing funding. We urge the newly elected Democratic majorities to use their leverage to demand a negotiated political solution and to bring all of the troops home as soon as possible.