Bush's new Iraq plan contains old elements

Posted: Wednesday, January 10, 2007

WASHINGTON - President Bush's new plan for Iraq sounds a lot like his old one. Send in more troops, set goals for the Iraqi government and assure Americans it's better to wage war there than here.

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And now the U.S. military is back in Somalia, too, once again attacking suspected terrorist targets.

Bush's challenge in Iraq: Show what's different now.

The plan the president will outline to the nation tonight is the latest repackaging of a program that's been wrapped and rewrapped many times.

The White House recognizes that a majority of Americans disapprove of Bush's handling of Iraq and that Democrats are eager to assert their new leadership on Capitol Hill by challenging his proposal to send in more troops.

But Bush advisers also believe that Americans do not necessarily support an immediate withdrawal and might be willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt if he presents a feasible, detailed plan that points the way to an eventual U.S. drawdown.

It's different this time, Bush supporters say of his new strategy.

For one thing, administration officials contend that the Iraqi government, while still fragile, has matured and will do much more of its part this time.

They note that Bush has reshuffled his military and diplomatic team in Iraq and has a new defense secretary, Robert Gates, to carry out the revised plan.

Bush has told lawmakers he plans to send about 20,000 more troops to Iraq. There are roughly 132,000 there now. The White House also is working on its largest-ever appeal for more war funds - a record $100 billion, at least - to be submitted along with Bush's Feb. 5 budget.

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"He does understand that it's important to bring the public back to this war and restore public confidence in support for the mission," spokesman Tony Snow said Tuesday.

Still, there's clearly a been-there, done-that feel to Bush's new plan.

It's an old story: The U.S. before has temporarily raised troop levels, taken steps to encourage democracy, spent money on education and public works and set benchmarks for the Iraqi government.

In the fall of 2005, the president gave a series of speeches around the country on the way forward in Iraq. To mark the campaign, the White House issued a glossy 35-page document titled "Our National Strategy for Victory in Iraq," spelling out a series of military, political and economic initiatives.

"This last summer there was a troop increase that really did no good in my opinion whatsoever," says Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

That was after Bush went to Baghdad and announced a joint effort with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to beef up security in Baghdad - and after an earlier joint effort failed to stem the tide of sectarian violence. The newer one failed too.

Skelton suggests too much attention is being paid to the latest plan's rollout.

"Whatever the president does, it is still up to the Iraqis to make or break it themselves. So let's not put any more spotlight on this decision any more than those in the past, which sadly have not been good ones," he says.

As Bush outlines his new Iraq strategy, he may well mention the new U.S. airstrikes in Somalia that targeted Islamic extremists.

He can cite the war on terrorism's multiple fronts. It fits in with his fight-them-abroad-not-at-home thesis. Administration allies suggest the U.S. withdrawal from Somalia in 1993 helped strengthen the al-Qaida terror network.

"Just as the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan emboldened and enlarged al-Qaida, just as our withdrawal from Somalia encouraged them to go find more targets, our defeat in Iraq would expand the numbers of terrorists and embolden them to seek new strategic targets," said Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, a Republican member of the House Armed Services Committee.

Analysts and lawmakers have mixed views on whether Bush can do anything to turn the tide in Iraq. Some say it's possible, but that the odds are low after nearly four years of war.

"Anything that would work now would have worked even better two years ago," said Michael O'Hanlon, a foreign policy analyst at Brookings Institution who served as an adviser to the Iraq Study Group. "Increasing troops has always been an option. But this is probably the least promising time to try it of the past almost four years."

The bipartisan Iraq Study Group, led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton, called for beginning to withdraw combat troops - a central recommendation Bush apparently has chosen to ignore.

Many Democrats and some Republicans await Bush's speech with skepticism.

"There is the troubling issue of the capacity of the struggling government in Iraq, consumed as it is by fractional fighting, to establish any kind of sustained governing coalition," said Ray DuBois, a Pentagon official until last March who is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, complained that Bush initially promised that Americans would stand down as Iraqis stood up. "Now it sounds like we're being told that Americans will stand up as the Iraqis are standing up. That's a confusing difference to me."



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