Proposed by a handful of retired generals, pushed internally by officials in the National Security Council, and advocated in public by Sen. John McCain, the "surge" has become the hot tactical idea of the season. The debate over a surge is now under way both about how big to make it and about whether to do it at all. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell said over the weekend that he was not convinced a surge in troops would work, while Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said his party would support a limited, short-term jump in troop levels.
What's going on? Some score settling, some keister covering and maybe some leverage in the making, too.
But, first, a quick review of the surge's short, celebrated life:
» Earlier this summer, the U.S. launched a sort of internal surge of forces, when it redeployed several thousand troops out of western Iraq back to Baghdad, to try and stabilize the capital. That campaign, as everyone knows, was not successful.
» In November, Gen. John Abizaid, the CENTCOM boss, balked at the idea of a troop surge, telling the Senate Armed Services Committee he didn't need more troops to pacify Baghdad. Besides, he added, a surge presented two additional problems: it would discourage rather than encourage the Iraqis to take responsibility for their security. And it would not be sustainable. Abizaid said U.S. forces that have rotated out of Baghdad and back to the U.S. now lack the equipment to increase the "op-tempo," the Pentagon phrase for work rate.
» The Baker commission reported two weeks ago that, while it backed a staged withdrawal over the next year in general, it would support a brief surge under two conditions: if it were used to train Iraqi forces, and (this is key) if U.S. commanders in the region asked for a surge.
» Baker's team had barely finished its press availabilities before a handful of retired generals, led by retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, began agitating for a surge of upwards of 30,000 troops more if they could be found to pour into Baghdad, stabilize the city, and defeat the insurgents.
Which brings us to yesterday's comments by Powell, who in a previous life was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Powell told CBS News' Face the Nationthat he was "not persuaded that another surge of troops into Baghdad for the purposes of suppressing this communitarian violence, this civil war, will work." Powell said he had not yet heard anything like a clear mission for a surged U.S. force. Plus, he added, "I'm not sure any of the commanders have said that yet." Powell was reminding listeners that George W. Bush has always said that he would add forces only when his active duty ground commanders asked for it. They haven't, suggested Powell, implying that Bush may not be listening to them now any more than he was before. Finally, he said, the U.S. military needs to be increased in size.
Powell remains a hugely controversial figure in the events of the last five years; his U.N. testimony about Saddam Hussein's WMD program will be remembered by historians as a tragic snow job with Powell, perhaps, among those who was snowed most. But whatever one makes of him as an intelligence analyst, his judgment as a veteran of ground warfare looks increasingly wise. Powell's comments renew the debate, raging since the start of the Iraqi war, between those, like Powell, who believe wars are best fought with overwhelming and punishing force, and those who thought that the war would be a cakewalk. Everyone knows now that the U.S. went into Iraq way too light, with too few troops and no plan for after the shooting stopped. In Powell's first interview in a year coming just a few days after Don Rumsfeld's over-the-top farewell at the Pentagon Powell reminded me all over again how inept the Rumsfeld war plan was.
And what of Reid's support for a troop surge? Well, first, Democrats are split on what to do next, and there has always been a good chunk of the Senate caucus that might well back more, not fewer, troops. Though Democrats pushed the Baker-Hamilton commission behind the scenes (to no avail) to set firm timetables for U.S. withdrawal, Reid's comments are a reminder that they are not yet ready to take such a hard line in public. The public may think Iraq is a mistake and a fiasco; but it may not be ready to bug out. Finally, the Democrats may be betting that a surge by Bush is inevitable anyway, so why not get on board now, and take away any suggestion that they are against it. But this probably won't be the last we hear from Reid on troop levels. My bet is that Reid will have some strings to attach to that promise of support by the time the President unveils his plan in January.