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Iraq policy surgery

Bush needs to present a realistic plan tonight that includes conditions for bringing the troops home.

January 10, 2007

TWO COMPETING realities are vying for center stage as President Bush prepares to address the American people tonight on his "new way forward" in Iraq.

In the tidy Washington narrative, the future of American involvement in Mesopotamia has been reduced to a simplistic "to surge or not to surge" question. Once again, a complicated, life-and-death geopolitical matter is reduced to a scoreboard friendly, blue team vs. red team framework.

The notion that the "surge" in U.S. troops under discussion -- about 20,000 combat troops on top of the 132,000 already in Iraq -- amounts to a new policy is laughable. Adding troops is a tactic, a means toward an end, not a serious strategy -- except maybe in the Washington reality in which politicians on both sides of the debate benefit from pretending that a short-term number is a question for the ages.

It allows Bush to pretend he is taking bold action to alter the course of a deteriorating war. And it allows Democrats to oppose something concrete and possibly to atone for their original support for the war without having to risk their political fortunes by calling for a complete withdrawal.

The commander in chief needs to set aside his wearisome spin, transcend the phony Washington reality and confront squarely the all-too-real tragedy unfolding in Iraq, a nation whose civil war is intensifying on our watch.

As we have argued before, a temporary increase in troops may be necessary, especially to pacify Baghdad. But only as part of a comprehensive -- and comprehensible -- plan to secure and democratize Iraq. The president needs to explain tonight exactly what he will do with the U.S. military force should the government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki fail to carry out a minimum of stability enhancing measures.

Washington must issue an ultimatum to Baghdad to disrupt Shiite militias linked to the government and to forge an equitable distribution of political power and national riches across sectarian divides. The question for Bush tonight isn't so much whether to send in 20,000 additional troops, it's whether the reinforcements will have a goal worth fighting for and a plan with a chance of success.

It's been leaked that Bush also will advocate a new, $1-billion jobs program for Iraqis. That sounds like a significant enhancement to the military escalation, but Americans are no doubt weary of the administration's repeated claims that victory is right around the corner. What is this additional $1 billion going to accomplish that the $30 billion already spent on that nation's reconstruction failed to do?

Bush needs to spell out a realistic plan for ameliorating the ongoing disaster in Iraq. But if he wants to reassure Americans and give warning to Shiite leaders in Baghdad, he must do something more. The president needs to articulate the conditions under which the U.S. will pull out altogether, in the near future. As painful as that would be, it sure beats becoming embroiled in someone else's civil war.

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