President Bush may be coming around to the idea that U.S. military strength needs to be increased. He made a stunning qualified admission the other day when he told the Washington Post he wants an increase in the permanent size of both the Army and the Marines.
When it comes to Iraq, "We're not winning, we're not losing," he told the newspaper, cutting it right down the safe middle advanced by his military adviser. But that was still a change from his pre-November election declaration, "Absolutely, we're winning."
Boosting troop levels in Iraq happens to be one of the Iraq Study Group's recommendations, a bipartisan commission led by former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III. Retired generals have long echoed the sentiment, as have a number of Democrats.
An increase in the overall size of the military from the current 140,000 troops would seem necessary if American forces, already stretched dangerously thin by commitments in the Middle East and elsewhere, were to "surge" more troops into Iraq as part of an effort to train Iraqi security forces and turn over stabilized areas to their control.
The recent hand-off of Najaf, the first province under American control to be returned to the Iraqis, was possible because security there largely was being handled by Iraqis already. In comparison, the coalition goal of turning over all of Iraq's provinces by the end of next year still seems remote, given the strides necessary in training the Iraqi military while the insurgency still is growing.
Bush has pledged to work with military and political leaders to develop a plan, vowing that the United States won't be "run out" of the Middle East because of a tough battle. Had he listened to his military leaders earlier, troop levels might have been large enough -- or better deployed, an alternative view embraced by some generals -- to better deal with growing violence in Iraq.
Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's replacement, Robert Gates, has been careful not to tie the president's proposal to boost the size of the U.S. military to the issue of additional troops in Iraq. That decision, he said in a Baghdad news conference, "won't show up in trained troops for some period of time."
But time is short. Violence is at an all-time high, according to a Pentagon report. Civilian, Iraqi and coalition forces are being attacked with impunity, numbering 1,000 a week between Aug. 12 and Nov. 10, with more than two-thirds of the violence directed at the coalition troops. December was an especially violent month, and U.S. losses in Iraq topped 3,000 for the entire war to date.
Increasing the size of the military would be a costly move that also might signal a greater American commitment to police the globe, a possibility that needs much more debate. But this war now may need at least a short-term boost in manpower to enable the country not just to fill the needs of a 3 1/2 -year-old war but to meet other threats quickly. That deserves serious consideration at the White House, and on Capitol Hill.