All the Time He Needs
The New York Times | Editorial
Sunday 13 April 2008
President Bush said last week that he told his Iraq war commander, Gen. David Petraeus, that "he'll have all the time he needs." We know what that means. It means that the general, like the Iraqi government, should feel no pressure to figure a way out of this disastrous war. It means that even after 20,000 troops come home there will be nearly 140,000 American troops still fighting there - with no plan for further withdrawals and no plan for leading them to victory.
It means, as we've always suspected, that Mr. Bush's only real strategy for Iraq has been to hand the mess off to his successor. Mr. Bush gave himself all the time he needs to walk away from one of the biggest strategic failures in American history.
General Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the American ambassador to Baghdad, did not try to hide any of that in their Stay-the-Course 2008 Tour. There were the obligatory claims of military and political progress, but with a lot less specificity than during Stay-the-Course 2007. Mr. Crocker did not even bother to bring charts assessing Iraqi performance on political benchmarks. General Petraeus's charts showed that American troop numbers would come down to around 140,000 this summer - but showed nothing beyond that.
When members of Congress pressed him to explain what would have to change on the ground for him to agree to further withdrawals, the general did not have an answer. He certainly is not getting any pressure from the White House to come up with one. As they say in the military, Mr. Bush is a short-timer, so why should he worry?
Whoever wins the presidency will not have the same luxury. He or she will have to start quickly planning for an orderly withdrawal. Even Senator John McCain will have to realize that America's forces cannot sustain this pace for much longer. Earlier this month, The Times reported that repeated battlefield tours have so debilitated American troops that Army leaders fear for their mental health. Last week, Gen. Richard A. Cody, the Army vice chief of staff, warned Congress that the demand for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan "exceeds the sustainable supply."
Mr. Bush cut Army combat tours in Iraq from 15 months to 12, but the Pentagon said that will not relieve the strains on troops and their families or allow the United States to send the reinforcements it desperately needs to Afghanistan.
The faltering American economy also cannot afford this never-ending war. Mr. Bush's description of his latest emergency spending request as a "reasonable $108 billion" proves just how out of touch he is with fiscal reality. His attempt to justify the overall $600 billion cost so far by comparing his war to the cold war and the need to stop "Soviet expansion" shows that he is even more out of touch with strategic reality.
We believe that the fight against Al Qaeda is the central battle for this generation, but Mr. Bush's claim that Iraq is the main front is wrong. That is Afghanistan, and the United States is in real danger of losing because Mr. Bush's failed adventure in Iraq is eating up the Pentagon's resources and attention.
It is clear that Mr. Bush has no intention of coming up with an exit strategy, but even now there are things he could be doing to give his successor a better shot at containing the chaos after American troops leave.
Press for Real Political Reforms
The surge was supposed to give Iraqi politicians breathing room to make necessary political reforms. They still have not agreed on a law to equitably divide the country's oil wealth, or rules for this fall's provincial elections.
The performances in Washington last week merely confirmed what the Iraqis knew: the president is just playing out his string. Mr. Bush might have more luck telling Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki the truth: if the Democrats win in November, the days of enabling will certainly be over, and that is likely to happen even if the Republicans hold the White House. If they know the Americans will not be there to guarantee their survival, Iraq's leaders might be more open to compromise.
Make the Iraqis Pick Up the Check
Even some of the war's most enthusiastic G.O.P. backers on Capitol Hill are joining the Democrats to demand that the Iraqis start paying for military training and the fuel bill for American soldiers. We suspect that has a lot to do with voters' fury over high gasoline prices, the mortgage crisis and the lagging economy.
The Iraqi government is estimated to keep $27 billion in reserves in its central bank, $30 billion more in American banks and tens of billions of dollars elsewhere. If they have to pick up more of the check, Iraqi leaders may be more eager to focus on political reform and improved military training.
Really Talk to the Neighbors
Mr. Bush announced that he is dispatching senior American diplomats to the region to urge Arab states to do more to help Iraq, starting with reopening their embassies in Baghdad. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will also attend a conference of neighboring states and another aid-pledging meeting.
The problem goes far beyond embassies and aid. Foreign fighters are not the war's main driver but they are a lethal problem. And once American troops withdraw, the temptation to meddle - by Iran and Syria but also by Turkey and Saudi Arabia - will be immense.
All these countries need to understand that chaos in Iraq is a threat to everyone, and there is no guarantee that it will not spill over Iraq's borders. More bullying and bluster from the president is not likely to get that message across. Nor are canned speeches at conferences. Mr. Bush needs to send his top officials for serious one-on-one discussions with all of Iraq's neighbors, including Iran and Syria.
There are now an estimated 2.4 million Iraqi refugees - mostly in Syria and Jordan - and 2.7 million more Iraqis displaced within their own country. The United States bears direct responsibility, and it needs to do a lot more to help these people survive and find safe refuge, back in Iraq or in other countries. It also needs to - humbly and urgently - ask its allies in Europe, Asia and the region for help.
Beyond the intolerable human suffering, huge flows of refugees could spread Iraq's conflict far beyond its own borders. This is not a problem that can continue to be ignored.
An Honest Assessment of Iraq's Army
This White House has been spinning on Iraq for so long that we suppose we should thank Mr. Maliki for his recent reality check: his decision to send Iraqi forces into Basra to oust militias loyal to the radical cleric Moktada al-Sadr.
It was not a pretty sight. One thousand Iraqi soldiers and police officers refused to fight or deserted their posts. The battle ended with no winner and only after the Iranians helped broker a cease-fire. President Bush and General Petraeus owe the country a rigorous and honest assessment of the American training program, starting with what went wrong in Basra. What needs to be changed now to increase the chances that the Iraqi Army will eventually be able to fight its own battles? How long, realistically, will it take for that to happen?
Mr. Bush's capacity for denial is limitless. Perhaps he believes that the next president will continue this misadventure without any end in mind, let alone in sight. Even then he owes it to his successor to use his remaining nine months in office to try to address Iraq's myriad problems. That will not excuse Mr. Bush's serial failures. But it may increase the chances for the inevitable withdrawal to be as orderly as possible.
Mr. Bush has all the time he needs, but Iraq's suffering civilians do not, and neither do its masses of refugees, the bloodied and strained United States armed forces, or the American public.