Following Mr. Bush's 'way forward' in Iraq will get us nowhere

The Baltimore Sun

PHILADELPHIA -- In his address last week on "the way forward in Iraq," President Bush omitted the most important things you need to know.

Most Americans want a strategy that will stabilize Iraq and let us draw down troops without greater chaos. The Petraeus-Crocker testimony to Congress offered tactics that may keep Iraq from crumbling further. But it was up to the president to present a strategy to hold Iraq together and prevent greater radicalization of the entire region.

Instead, Mr. Bush punted. Far from offering a "way forward," his Iraq program will at best keep the status quo until the mess is dumped on the next president in 2009.

What Mr. Bush failed to tell you is where things really stand in Iraq and what must be done to avoid future disasters. The president didn't mention that the force reductions he announced are not "a return on success," as he claims. They are happening because the military has run out of troops.

Ever since the surge began, top military commanders made clear that the 30,000 extra soldiers were dangerously overstretching the Army and Marines. When I was in Baghdad in June, every senior officer I spoke to said those troops would have to start leaving by March or April. Otherwise, the military could not maintain its onerous rotation schedule.

Mr. Bush also failed to admit that the basic premise of the surge is failing. The thesis went like this: If the extra troops could tamp down the most egregious sectarian attacks, Iraq's Sunni and Shiite factions would be able to reconcile.

The extra U.S. troops have made progress - within Sunni and Shiite areas. Extra Marines and U.S. funds have encouraged the movement of Sunni sheiks against al-Qaida in Iraq (although this movement started before the new troops arrived).

But the touted progress in Anbar province doesn't help resolve the major problem the Americans face. These Sunni sheiks and other Sunni dissident groups now working with U.S. troops against al-Qaida in Iraq are still hostile to the Shiite-led government. That hostility is mutual.

Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker are trying to persuade the central government to reach out to Sunnis; they are also trying to persuade both sides to fight for resources and power through the political system rather than with guns.

But this presumes Iraqis can be persuaded to see their struggle as a rational political competition rather than an existential, zero-sum battle. So far there are few signs that Shiite or Sunni leaders are shifting to this kind of thinking. Unless they do, the surge strategy leaves U.S. troops standing between two Iraqi sects that are preparing for a bigger civil war when we exit. And we are now arming both sides.

I don't believe, as do many Democrats, that setting a timeline for U.S. withdrawal would force Iraqis toward political compromise. Just the opposite: A timeline would act like a starting gun that signals all sides to prepare for the bigger battles to come.

But the current surge strategy contains no levers, either, to make reconciliation happen. Iraqis are clearly unable to compromise by themselves, and the administration has had no success in applying pressure. Nor does training Iraqi forces to replace ours offer a good solution; without political reconciliation, those forces will split by sect as soon as U.S. troops leave.

So the most glaring omission in Mr. Bush's speech is his failure to address the central question: What is the U.S. strategy to foster political progress inside Iraq, the kind of progress that will enable U.S. troops to go home?

There is only one strategy that holds any hope of pressing Iraqi leaders to reach consensus: an international diplomatic offensive, with full U.S. backing, that draws in the permanent U.N. Security Council members, the European Union and all of Iraq's neighbors, including Iran and Syria.

The Iraqi Study Group recommended this, and it has bipartisan support in Congress.

So why has Mr. Bush failed to formulate such a strategy? When he introduced the surge in January, the president declared that "we will use America's full diplomatic resources to rally support for Iraq." Yet the administration has made only faint gestures at international diplomacy.

Perhaps the president believes that promoting diplomacy involves a tacit admission that his policies have failed. Perhaps he's still reluctant to engage more deeply with Damascus or Tehran. Perhaps he believes his own spin.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays in The Sun. Her e-mail is

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