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America’s Unfinished Debate on Iraq

More than four years after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration is still searching for a national security strategy to protect Americans. To cover up its mistakes, President Bush has reverted to partisan attacks – smearing critics and delivering slogan-ridden speeches to friendly audiences.

The Bush administration’s decision to choose partisan politics over serious national security policy is most apparent in Iraq. Despite two months of a public relations offensive, the majority of Americans disapprove of President Bush’s handling of Iraq. The country’s debate on Iraq must continue. This memorandum:

  • describes eight key problems with President Bush’s “Victory Strategy in Iraq;” and
  • outlines how President Bush continues to choose domestic political spin over sound national security policy on Iraq.

Assessing Bush’s National Victory Strategy in Iraq: Eight Key Problems

President Bush’s National Victory Strategy in Iraq ignores reality and growing calls from Republicans and Democrats for a new direction. Instead, the Bush plan for Iraq is a re-statement of President Bush’s “stay the course” plan – a vague, open-ended commitment that plays into the hands of our enemies. By staying the course, the President is holding U.S. national security hostage, allowing terrorists, insurgents, and cynical Iraqi politicians to dictate the direction and terms of U.S. policy.

There are eight critical problems with President Bush’s approach:

1. The Bush plan undermines the security of the United States at home and abroad.

By failing to present a reasonable plan for drawing down U.S. troops, the Bush plan seriously weakens our military’s ability to protect Americans at home and abroad. Several recent studies highlight that extended deployments in Iraq have eroded U.S. ground forces and overall military strength, including a Pentagon-commissioned study that concluded that the Army cannot maintain its current pace of operations in Iraq without leaving permanent damage.

The massive deployment of National Guard and Reserve units overseas has undermined the ability of the United States to deal with terrorist attacks or natural disasters. For example, state officials in Louisiana and Mississippi struggled to overcome the absence of National Guard members from their states in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. U.S. vulnerability is particularly apparent on the Korean peninsula, where an Army brigade stationed in South Korea has been sent to Iraq.

2. The Bush plan fails to recognize that the open-ended U.S. military presence in Iraq has become a rallying cry and recruitment tool for global terrorist networks.

By invading Iraq without a plan to stabilize the country, the Bush administration created a new terrorist haven where none had previously existed. By maintaining an open-ended military presence in Iraq, the Bush administration is presenting U.S. terrorist enemies with a recruitment tool and rallying cry for organizing attacks against the United States and its allies.

3. The Bush plan ignores our military commanders’ advice to reduce U.S. troop presence in order to counter the insurgency and motivate Iraqi security forces to take control.

Military commanders on the ground like Generals George Casey and John Abizaid have repeatedly said that the United States must reduce its military presence in Iraq to counter the insurgency, reduce perceptions of occupation, and encourage the Iraqi leaders to take charge. The administration took limited steps to draw down the U.S. military presence in Iraq to 136,000 since the December 2005 Iraqi elections. But a larger drawdown is necessary in 2006 to put Iraqi leaders on notice and tell them to take charge. Signals from the United States in the fall of 2005 that it was planning to reduce its military presence in Iraq led Iraqis to assume more responsibility and spurred new regional diplomacy.

4. The Bush plan does not define the costs of the plan.

To date, most estimates place the direct financial cost of the Iraq war at over $250 billion and rapidly rising, but these estimates depend on what is included in the assumptions. A recent study by Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard budget expert Linda Bilmes suggested that the total costs of the Iraq war may exceed $2 trillion. The Bush plan fails to outline the costs of the activities proposed in the strategy – a key issue when the legislation for supplemental funding for Iraq and Afghanistan comes to Capitol Hill later this spring.

5. The Bush plan ignores a central strategic threat to a free and stable Iraq – ethnic and sectarian militias controlling large segments of the country.

The “clear, build, and hold” slogan touted to pitch the Bush administration’s anti-insurgency approach merely restates the same failed approach used during the last three years. Operation Steel Curtain, a series of raids and sweeps initiated in Al-Anbar province in advance of President Bush’s latest public relations campaign, is the latest in a series of more than 100 operations conducted since May 2003 that has failed to bring stability to Iraq.

One key strategic question that remains unanswered by the Bush plan is how to deal with the several ethnic and sectarian militias which control large parts of the country, including an estimated 100,000 Kurdish pesh merga forces; 10,000 members of the Badr Brigade, a Shiite militia with close ties to U.S. adversary Iran; and the Madhi militia, which attacked and killed members of the U.S. military and Iraqi security forces in 2004.

In addition, the White House is also silent on the crucial question of militias operating as “death squads” in the Iraqi security forces.

6. The Bush plan cuts and runs on Iraq’s reconstruction.

Though the Bush plan talks a good game about helping Iraqis build a stable and prosperous society, the administration’s actions and plans speak louder than words. In early January, reports emerged that the Bush administration does not intend to seek any new funds for Iraq reconstruction in the budget request going before Congress next month.

Yet a recent report by the U.S. special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction found that the United States will not complete basic water and electricity projects, and much work remains undone in Iraq. Oil production in Iraq, vital because it provides nearly 90 percent of the Iraqi government’s budget, remains below pre-war level at 1.57 millions of barrels a day, down from 2.51 millions of barrels of day in January 2003.

President Bush claims to have a plan to defeat the insurgency and stabilize Iraq. Yet the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) issued a $1 billion bid for contracts for 10 “strategic cities” considered crucial for defeating the insurgency. The USAID request for proposals for this project, as well as an in-depth analysis of the situation in Iraq by the agency, contradict the rosy tone of progress that President Bush has emphasized in his public relations campaign.

Finally, President Bush and his team have heralded the concept of provisional reconstruction teams as key to helping Iraq rebuild. But like the broader concept of “clear, build, and hold,” the provincial reconstruction teams have been hampered by some difficult realities, including disputes with the administration about how to design these teams for Iraq and problems finding qualified personnel.

7. It lacks a diplomatic plan for getting Iraq’s neighbors more involved in Iraq’s reconstruction and renewal.

The Bush plan says little about regional diplomacy and its plans for getting Iraq’s neighbors involved in the process of making Iraq more stable and prosperous.

8. It is based on a flawed assumption that democracy, narrowly defined as elections, will end terrorism.

The Bush plan for Iraq is solidly grounded in a flawed view of combating terrorism, arguing that promoting a narrow vision of democracy will crowd out and defeat terrorists.

The United States must and should support real democratic transitions around the world. But the Bush administration’s naïve approach to democracy promotion – narrowly focused on elections – has failed by giving terrorist organizations an opening to seize the reins of power, as seen by the Hamas triumph in last week’s Palestinian elections.

Despite impressive gains in Iraq’s political transition, the country remains in the very early and fragile stages of a long-term process of building a real democracy. Contrary to the rhetoric put forth by the Bush administration, Iraqis do not live in freedom, according to Freedom House, which has provided the gold standard for measuring trends in political rights and civil liberties over the past three decades. Iraq needs strong institutions.

America’s Debate on Iraq: November 2005 – January 2006

During the past two months, President George W. Bush and his top national security advisors mounted a public relations campaign involving more than a dozen media appearances by President Bush to convince Americans that his administration has a “victory strategy” in Iraq.

President Bush fails to fundamentally shift American opinion on Iraq. But the Bush plan has failed to seriously shift public opinion. After two months, President Bush has not convinced a majority of Americans that he has a plan for Iraq, and six in ten still disapprove of his handling of Iraq.

President Bush ignores Congress. The Bush “Victory Strategy in Iraq” came in the immediate aftermath of a vote of no confidence in President Bush’s Iraq policies by 79 Republicans and Democrats in the Senate on November 15, 2005 and a call by defense hawk Congressman John Murtha, ranking Democrat on the Defense Appropriations Committee, for a redeployment of U.S. troops from Iraq to make Americans safer and encourage Iraqis to take the lead. But the Bush plan offers nothing new, essentially restating President Bush’s “stay the course” message.

The Bush administration seeks to cut off legitimate debate. Rather than engaging critics in a serious debate, the Bush administration has used four main tactics to justify the “stay the course” stance and cover up its errors:

1. Demonize honest critics with opposing views. First, the Bush administration has questioned the patriotism of its critics. In this “take no prisoners” campaign mode, Bush political operatives like Karl Rove and Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman continue to politicize national security, present false choices like “stay the course” versus “cut and run,” and brand their opponents as “retreat and defeat.” As two prominent veterans, Republican Chuck Hagel and Democrat John Murtha, have argued, it is unpatriotic NOT to raise questions in a time of war.

2. Lecture about “irresponsible” debate. Harkening back to 2002, when Bush officials warned that people should “watch what they say,” President Bush and top officials in his administration have warned against “irresponsible” debate to limit and control democratic political debate at home, even while the Bush administration purports to advance democracy abroad. The Bush administration has also argued that questioning its plan emboldens America’s terrorist enemies, an ironic and nonsensical argument aimed solely at shutting off real debate at home.

3. Use troops as a shield from legitimate criticism. The Bush administration has said that offering concrete policy alternatives in the U.S. debate hurts the morale of U.S. troops.

4. Attempt to portray national consensus when none exists. Finally, the Bush administration has attempted to preempt serious debate on its eleventh-hour Iraq plan by attempting to portray a sense of national consensus where none truly exists. In December and January, President Bush selected a number of Democratic Congressional leaders to participate in closed discussions at the White House on Iraq, excluding his most vocal critics from the invitation list. On January 4, 2006, President Bush invited a bipartisan group of 13 former secretaries of state and defense ostensibly to elicit comments about his Iraq strategy. Instead, President Bush allowed no more than ten minutes of exchange with the group.

In addition, speeches and statements by President Bush’s National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley and White House spokesman Scott McClellan, among other Bush administration officials, stretched the truth and argued that the country was uniting behind the Bush administration’s National Victory Strategy in Iraq when in fact the country remains divided as ever.

America’s Debate on Iraq Must Continue

The United States is at war, and its Commander-in-Chief is caught up in his own cycle of political spin and partisan attacks. The stakes are enormous in Iraq, and the United States needs a more vigorous debate to question the assumptions that the Bush administration has presented. After calling upon the administration to lay out a plan for making 2006 a year of significant transition in Iraq, leaders in Congress on both sides of the aisle must stand up, ask the tough questions, and offer clear alternatives to the Bush approach of “staying the course.”

The Bush plan is nothing but a re-statement of the failed course of action that has undermined U.S. global security interests for the past three years. It must be challenged. Minor adjustments to an already failed strategy, as some analysts have suggested, will not serve U.S. interests. The United States needs to fundamentally change the course in Iraq and seriously consider options like Strategic Redeployment, which offers a clear alternative that marshals the right kind of U.S. power to address the threats the United States faces in Iraq and the world.

Brian Katulis is the Director of Democracy and Public Diplomacy at the Center for American Progress.

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 (Brian Katulis)

Brian Katulis

Former Senior Fellow