Staying the course

January 11, 2007

When you look at what President Bush actually proposed last night, you begin to realize how little there was to it. Adding more than 20,000 troops is a move in the wrong direction, but the U.S. has been around the 150,000 mark before. More money for reconstruction and jobs is a good idea, but $1 billion is a tiny fraction of the money that has already been spent and largely wasted. Holding the feet of the Iraqi government to the fire sounds great, but the president, despite his protestations to the contrary, offered no reason to suppose that what hasn't worked in the past will work any better in the future.

It's not a change in strategy. It is instead an intensification of a strategy that has been a failure for nearly four years. At a time when America should be extricating itself from Iraq, it is an escalation. It is too small to make a significant difference in the war - but it will nonetheless put more American lives at risk, and, unbelievably, it includes the transfer of an Army infantry battalion from eastern Afghanistan, where it is badly needed. If the reinforcement should prove unsuccessful, it lays the groundwork for further escalations to come.

The White House had made much of the president's prime-time address, but in the end it had a whole lot more "stay the course" in it than Mr. Bush was willing to let on. There are two obvious explanations for this: the president's desire to thumb his nose at the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, and his desire to pick a fight with the Democratic Congress.

The country is heading for rough political water in the weeks and months ahead. The new Congress must not flinch in its dealings with the administration over Iraq, but at the same time it must carefully build momentum toward a genuine change in strategy.

Some have derided the largely toothless resolutions on the war, which leaders in both the House and Senate will introduce, but we see them as reasonable markers.

The hearings with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, scheduled for today, are, however, far more significant. Here are the main questions we'd like to see put to them:

Will you explain to the country, please, how you expect the president's proposals to end the sectarian warfare in Iraq?

Are 20,000 extra troops what the situation requires, or simply what's available?

Are they going to be fighting primarily with Sunni insurgents or with Shiite militias? Can you explain why Americans should be fighting against both sides in a civil war?

And how precisely does this promote reconciliation, which is what actually matters, and which is a political rather than a military task?

Certainly Mr. Bush offered no satisfactory answers last night. If none is forthcoming from his Cabinet officers, it would be appropriate for Congress to start wielding its subpoena authority to find out what the administration really thinks - and that includes an investigation of the thinking and planning that got Iraq to where it is today.

The president may believe he can draw Congress into a fight that he could win (with a lot of talk about cutting and running, and an emphasis on his constitutional powers). With the right strategy, we believe Congress can stand up to him.

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