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(photo credit: AP [file])
President George Bush's much-awaited speech on Iraq was a pragmatic one, grimly given. Bush knows that he will be judged less on what he says than on the results.
That said, the significance of the "surge" of more than 20,000 new US troops that Bush has ordered may lie less in their military impact than in what they signal: a rejection of the voices of retreat.
The new Democrat-controlled Congress is expected to attempt to thread the needle between registering opposition and attempting to block their commander in chief at a time of war. A smarter approach would be to claim credit for forcing Bush to reassess his policy, give the new policy a chance, and pledge to reassess in November, the month by which Bush said the Iraqi government has pledged to "take responsibility for security in all of Iraq's provinces."
While his opponents were demanding a timeline for withdrawal, Bush has essentially set a timeline for turning the corner toward success.
He has openly called for states in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf States, to "understand that an American defeat in Iraq would create a new sanctuary for extremists and a strategic threat to their survival." Bush's opponents in Congress must surely realize that the more opposition he has at home, the harder it will be to rally international support, thereby reducing the chances for success.
If Bush's plan has a weakness, it is not the number of troops or even American disunity, but the continuing hesitancy to confront the real enemy. Bush began, at least, to identify that enemy out loud, but still in largely defensive terms.
"Succeeding in Iraq also requires defending its territorial integrity and stabilizing the region in the face of extremist challenges," Bush said. "This begins with addressing Iran and Syria. These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq. Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops.
"We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We'll interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq."
Though this is perhaps the most accusatory finger the US has ever pointed at Iran in the Iraq context, it still goes nowhere near to expressing the full magnitude of Iranian involvement. Just as Israel was really fighting Iran in Lebanon this past summer, it is increasingly clear that America's real war in Iraq is with Iran.
Bush's self-imposed timeline for success is an invitation to Iran to make a concerted push to ensure America's defeat. While Saddam Hussein paid for suicide bombers against Israel, and Hizbullah and Iran are now paying Palestinians to shoot Kassams from Gaza, these efforts pale in scope compared to the billions of petrodollars and untold numbers of agents that Iran is investing in fomenting mayhem in Iraq. The high-level Iranian agents recently captured and released in Iraq are likely the tip of the iceberg.
The US is essentially in a race with Iran: Can America and the Iraqi government "clear, hold, and build" as fast as Iran can threaten, subvert, and destroy?
It will be very difficult, and perhaps impossible, to win such a race while Iran itself enjoys de facto immunity for its actions. The Iran-Iraq border cannot be hermetically sealed, particularly to the financing of terrorism. If Iran pays no price, and has much to gain, for fomenting terrorism, why would the mullahs not redouble their efforts?
One of the most important parts of attaining victory is to be seen to be winning, since many people and even governments choose sides based on who they think will win. The US cannot look like a winner if it seems afraid or unable to substantially raise the price Iran will pay, not only on the nuclear front, but for actively working to defeat the US in Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza.
Winning in Iraq cannot be the centerpiece of an Iran strategy. On the contrary, no plan to win in Iraq can be complete without a strategy to confront Iran, the greatest remaining source of radical Islamist terror in the region.