What counts now in Iraq is the next step: Whether the reluctant government of Nouri al-Maliki actually delivers on its promise of a crackdown on sectarian militias and death squads, and whether Iraq's army and security forces can step up and make a real difference.
President Bush this week announced strategy shifts that would cast the United States in more of a supporting role, primarily through embedding more American troops with Iraqi units and conducting joint sweeps to take and hold neighborhoods in Baghdad and insurgent-harboring areas of Anbar Province. That has been tried before, and Iraqi units and commitment have been found wanting. Unless this time is different, America may find itself simply providing national security cover for domestic sectarian violence and civil war. That cannot be allowed to happen.
The most controversial and spotlighted portion of the president's plan is his "surge" of 21,500 troops, mostly to boost American force levels in Baghdad and Anbar. Actually somewhere between a dribble and a true escalation -- it would bring troop levels to 153,500, less than the previous peak of 160,000 -- what is billed as a "temporary" increase could very well be a step in the wrong direction. In addition to putting more American lives at risk, the effort may be too small to accomplish a goal that is unattainable unless the Iraqis step up and take control of their nation.
In his speech, Bush set few new benchmarks. The most significant were a welcome demand that Iraqis assume security responsibilities in every province by November and an overdue move to absorb some former Baathists, many of whom were midlevel functionaries, back into Iraqi national life. In recent weeks, the administration also has pressured Prime Minister al-Maliki to take on the militias, including the most powerful force of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Al-Maliki long resisted that demand, but this week warned the militias they would be attacked if they didn't disarm.
Bush did make plain that he understood the dreadful position the country is in. On one side is the majority of Americans who won't stand much more of the situation in Iraq, while on the other is the real threat of Iraqi collapse and broader regional turmoil were Americans to suddenly pull out and leave the country to the insurgents within and the manipulators in Syria and Iran. A precipitate withdrawal could create a militant Shia Crescent from Lebanon and Syria through Iraq to Iran, send oil prices skyrocketing and trigger a recession, and make other nations, especially smaller ones, view America as an ally that can't be trusted.
The president also acknowledged making mistakes in Iraq, especially the fatal initial one of sending too few troops to do the job. That error is both tragic and unforgiveable, since it was entirely avoidable. The United States didn't have to invade Iraq, and despite warnings by many government and military observers, among others, Bush for years obstinately clung to the Rumsfeld-Cheney fantasy that America could change the Middle East at all, let alone on the cheap. The price of that education has been more than 3,000 American lives and untold numbers of Iraqis.
There is now new American military leadership in Iraq, which could signal a new and perhaps better direction. The Iraqi government has agreed to spend $10 billion on infrastructure improvements, and that -- coupled with a proposed new $1.2 billion U.S. infrastructure program -- could provide jobs and incentive to curb violence. But Bush also should still reconsider his refusal to engage Syria and Iran directly in discussions of Iraq.
Congressional Democrats and even some Republicans have criticized the president's plan, while an Associated Press poll showed a startling 70 percent of Americans oppose sending more troops to Iraq. Yet, in the end, there is little Congress can do to force the president to change this plan.
The Iraqi government needs to be pushed hard to end sectarian violence and establish credible national control, and the key to that will be whether the president's words can become real and effective actions. Like most Americans, we have serious doubts.