Column: The Public Eye: The Iraq War: Where’s the Strategy?

By Bob Burnett
Tuesday September 18, 2007

On Sept. 13, George W. Bush spoke to the United States about Iraq. In his most somber assessment to date, the president claimed the surge has achieved modest results and a few troops can return home. However, “Iraqi leaders have asked for an enduring relationship with America,” therefore additional troops will only “return on success.” Bush implied that large numbers of Americans would remain in Iraq throughout the remaining 17 months of his presidency. He didn’t present an exit strategy, but rather a profession of faith: U.S. troops can “win” in Iraq. 

In his speech, President Bush emphasized he is following the advice of the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus. On Sept. 10 and 11, General Petraeus presented his status report to the U.S. Congress. He emphasized “progress” made in buttressing security and downplayed the political situation, where little has been accomplished. He argued that current force levels—20 combat brigades—are required for the security of Iraqi civilians and there should not be a significant drawdown of U.S. troops until next spring. He suggested that substantial U.S. force levels—roughly 15 brigades—would be required for an indefinite period. 

America continues to be deeply divided about the conduct of the war and its relationship to national security, in general. On Sept. 11, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Service Committee, John Warner (Virginia), asked whether the current strategy in Iraq was “making America safer.” General Petraeus replied, “Sir, I don’t know, actually.” 

The debate about U.S. involvement in Iraq should be conducted within the framework of national security strategy. However, the Bush administration, and most Republicans, refuses to engage in this debate. Instead, the White House continually changes tactics without addressing the larger issue of whether the current strategy in Iraq is making America safer. 

President Bush continues to lead the “stay-until-we-win” Republican phalanx. After having proffered various justifications for the occupation of Iraq, Bush has decided that it’s the central front of his “War on Terror.” “Iraq is one of several fronts in the war on terror—but it’s the central front.” Thus, President Bush and General Petraeus want an open-ended commitment to Iraq. 

Roughly a quarter of the American electorate supports the Bush stance. Because of the communication power of the White House, the stay-until-we-win perspective has gotten the most U.S. media airtime in recent months and support for the president’s position has increased. Furthermore, the front-runners for the Republican nomination for president all embrace the notion that Iraq is the center of the war on terror However, another quarter of the electorate feels the U.S. should immediately begin to withdraw troops from Iraq. Apparently, the remaining 50 percent don’t know what to do. Writing in the latest edition of the New Yorker, Iraq expert George Packer observed, “The country seems trapped in an eternal present, paralyzed by its past mistakes.” 

The United States desperately needs a strategic perspective on Iraq: a long-term view that determines the best course of action after considering national priorities. That’s what Sen. Jack Reed (Democrat, Rhode Island) argued for in his response to the President’s address on Iraq: “Do we continue to heed the president’s call that all Iraq needs is more time, more money, and the indefinite presence of 130,000 American troops…? Or do we follow what is in our nation’s best interest and redefine our mission in Iraq?” Reed called for the U.S, to disengage itself from Iraq’s “civil war” and to develop a strategy to deal with both the diplomatic issues in the Middle East and the pursuit of al Qaeda. 

Last December the Iraq Study Group, a non-partisan body, took a strategic perspective on Iraq. They cautioned, “The United States should not make an open-ended commitment to keep large numbers of American troops deployed in Iraq.” Both the Iraq Study Group Report and George Packer’s New Yorker article suggest that a strategic perspective needs to consider three questions: How does continued allocation of 15-20 combat brigades to Iraq affect military readiness? How does continuation of the occupation impact the “war on terror?” And, what are America’s strategic interests in Iraq? 

Unfortunately, the Bush administration has proven incapable of thinking strategically. The president and most members of his Party are locked onto one tactic: “stay until we win.” Sen. Reed’s speech, and the comments of Congressman Skelton and Sen. Warner, indicate there is growing Congressional interest in addressing the question of whether involvement in Iraq is actually making America safer. Historically, in the American system, it has been the job of the executive branch of government to develop strategy and the responsibility of the legislative branch to fund it and, occasionally, make changes at the margins. In order to change direction in Iraq, before George W. Bush leaves office, it will be up to Congress to redefine American strategy in the “war” on terror. While possible, it seems unlikely this will happen. 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at