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To Surge or Not to Surge?


Robert Gates’ report to the White House on his discussions in Iraq this past week is likely to provide the missing ingredient for the troop ”surge” into Iraq favored by the ”decider” team of Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush.

When the understandable misgivings voiced by top U.S. military officials made it obvious that the surge cart had been put before the mission-objective horse, the president was forced to concede, as he did at his press conference on Wednesday, “There’s got to be a specific mission that can be accomplished with the addition of more troops, before I agree on that strategy.”

The president had led off the press conference by heightening expectations for the Gates visit to Iraq, noting that ”Secretary Gates is going to be an important voice in the Iraq strategy review that’s under way.” No doubt Gates was given the job of hammering out a ”specific mission” with U.S. generals and Iraqi leaders, and he is past master at sensing and delivering on his bosses’ wishes.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s aides have given Western reporters an outline of what the ”specific mission” may look like. It is likely to be cast as implementation of Maliki’s ”new vision,” under which U.S. troops would target primarily Sunni insurgents in outer Baghdad neighborhoods, while Iraqi forces would battle for control of inner Baghdad. A prescription for bloodbath, it has the advantage, from the White House perspective, of preventing the Iraqi capital from total disintegration until Bush and Cheney are out of office.

Well before Tuesday, when Gates flew off to Iraq, it was clear that Cheney and Bush remained determined to stay the course (without using those words) for the next two years. And the president’s Washington Post interview on Tuesday, as well has his press conference Wednesday strengthened that impression. In his prepared statement for the Post, Bush cast the conflict in Iraq as an enduring ”ideological struggle,” the context in which he disclosed that he is now “inclined to believe that we do need to increase our troops, the Army and Marines.”

Inconsistent message

Lest the Post reporters miss the point, the president added, ”I’m going to keep repeating this over and over again, that I believe we’re in an ideological struggle . . . that our country will be dealing with for a long time.” In the same interview, he described ”sectarian violence” in Iraq as “obviously the real problem we face.”

At his press conference the next day, the president repeated the same dual, inconsistent message, which went unchallenged by the White House press corps. Pick your poison: Do you prefer ”sectarian violence” as the real problem? Or is it ”ideological struggle?” The White House seems to be depending on a credulous press and Christmas-party eggnog to get by on this.

Incoming Senate majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said last Sunday that he could ”go along” with the widely predicted surge in U.S. troops in Iraq, but for only two or three months. Is it conceivable that Reid doesn’t know that this is about the next two years — not months? Egged on by ”full-speed-ahead” Cheney, Bush is determined that the war not be lost while he is president. And he is commander-in-chief. Events, however, are fast overtaking White House preferences and are moving toward denouement well before two more years are up.

`Get with the program’

Virtually everyone concedes that the war cannot be won militarily. And yet the so-called ”neoconservatives” whom Bush has listened to in the past are arguing strongly for a surge in troop strength. A generation from now, our grandchildren will have difficulty writing history papers on the oxymoronic debate now raging on how to surge/withdraw our troops into/from the quagmire in Iraq.

The generals in Iraq may have already been ordered by the White House to ”get with the program” on surging. Just as they ”never asked for more troops” at earlier stages of the war, they are likely to be instant devotees of a surge, once they smell the breezes from Washington. As for Gates, it is a safe bet that whatever personal input he may dare to offer will be dwarfed by Cheney’s. Taking issue with ”deciders” has never been Gates’ strong suit.

Whether Gates realizes it or not, the U.S. military is about to commit hara-kiri by ”surge.” The generals should know that, once an ”all or nothing” offensive like the ”surge” apparently contemplated has begun, there is no turning back.

It will be ”victory” over the insurgents and the Shiite militias or palpable defeat, recognizable by all in Iraq and across the world. Any conceivable ”surge” would not turn the tide — would not even stem it. We saw that last summer when the dispatch of 7,000 U.S. troops to reinforce Baghdad brought a fierce counter-surge — the highest level of violence since the Pentagon began issuing quarterly reports in 2005.

A major buildup would commit the U.S. Army and Marine Corps to decisive combat in which there would be no more strategic reserves to be sent to the front. As Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway pointed out Monday, “If you commit your reserve for something other than a decisive win, or to stave off defeat, then you have essentially shot your bolt.”

It will be a matter of win or die in the attempt. In that situation, everyone in uniform on the ground will commit every ounce of their being to ”victory,” and few measures will be shrunk from.

Analogies come to mind: Stalingrad, the Bulge, Dien Bien Phu, the Battle of Algiers.

It will be total war with the likelihood of all the excesses and mass casualties that come with total war. To force such a strategy on our armed forces would be nothing short of immoral, in view of predictable troop losses and the huge number of Iraqis who would meet violent injury and death. If adopted, the ”surge” strategy will turn out to be something we will spend a generation living down.

Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., spoke for many of us on Sunday when George Stephanopoulos asked him to explain why Smith had said on the Senate floor that U.S. policy on Iraq may be “criminal:”

“You can use any adjective you want, George. But I have long believed in a military context, when you do the same thing over and over again, without a clear strategy for victory, at the expense of your young people in arms, that is dereliction. That is deeply immoral.”

W. Patrick Lang, a retired Army colonel, served with Special Forces in Vietnam, as a professor at West Point and as defense intelligence officer for the Middle East.

Ray McGovern was a CIA analyst from 1963 to 1990 and Robert Gates’ branch chief in the early 1970s. McGovern now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). He is a contributor to Imperial Crusades, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair. They can be reached at:




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