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The last way forward

Bush's speech, like his strategy, was unsatisfying. But there are no good options left for the U.S. in Iraq.

January 11, 2007

PRESIDENT BUSH'S latest plan for Iraq has the feel of an overdue high school book report. It looks nice, reads well and is persuasive in parts. If only he had handed it in on time.

The "new way forward" outlined by the president in a prime-time address Wednesday makes too many obvious points (Iraqis must have more of a stake in their nation's success) and includes too many tired tropes (the war in Iraq is a central front in the war against terrorism). But the core of Bush's speech -- the reason to maintain at least some flicker of hope -- was an absolute-final-we're-really-serious-this-time ultimatum to the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.

Represent all Iraqis, Bush said, and do not prevent U.S. and Iraqi troops from cracking down on Shiite militias, or face U.S. disengagement. The test of this strategy will be whether Maliki, who owes his position to Shiite support, understands that the U.S. will not take sides in an Iraqi civil war -- and whether Bush means it when he says his commitment is not open-ended.

The president said he will order an additional 21,500 U.S. troops to Iraq, to be deployed mostly in Baghdad, and their goal will be to help Iraqi forces make the city safe. This is hardly new. Just last summer, to much fanfare, Maliki announced something called Operation Together Forward to provide security to "all neighborhoods of Baghdad." That effort failed miserably because Iraqi forces too often abandoned their posts or contributed to the sectarian violence instead of preventing it. Just last month, Bush's own national security advisor questioned Maliki's commitment to the rule of law and his ability to enforce it.

To his credit, Bush acknowledged this. "Many listening tonight will ask why this effort will succeed when previous operations to secure Baghdad did not," he said. "Here are the differences. In earlier operations, Iraqi and American forces cleared many neighborhoods of terrorists and insurgents, but when our forces moved on to other targets, the killers returned. This time, we'll have the force levels we need to hold the areas that have been cleared. In earlier operations, political and sectarian interference prevented Iraqi and American forces from going into neighborhoods that are home to those fueling the sectarian violence. This time, Iraqi and American forces will have a green light to enter those neighborhoods -- and Prime Minister Maliki has pledged that political or sectarian interference will not be tolerated."

Bush said he told Maliki that "America's commitment is not open-ended." He continued: "If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people -- and it will lose the support of the Iraqi people."

It is unlikely that the additional troops will be enough to make a difference, or that Maliki will honor his latest pledge. But America, and Iraq, will know in a matter of months whether U.S. troops can operate freely and whether Maliki's government is worth defending.

It would have been nice to have this answer months ago, and Bush deserves the blame for not demanding it sooner. At least he is finally making that demand. For his sake, and for the hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops and millions of Iraqis, we hope it's not too late.

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