Bush opts for troop boost despite scepticism

WASHINGTON — Leaders of the new Democratic-controlled Congress are vowing to fight it. An elite panel on Iraq has shown little enthusiasm for it. And even some military commanders are deeply sceptical about it.

Shrugging off those concerns, President George W. Bush unveiled plans on Wednesday to send more American troops to Iraq, setting the stage for the most intense debate on the war since the US-led invasion almost four years ago.

By going ahead with a troop increase, Bush is again proclaiming himself the “decider” as he tries to reassert his relevance after coming out on the losing end of a congressional power shift, analysts say.

Though weakened by his Republican Party’s defeat in the November congressional elections, he seems to be staking out his turf for continuing to prosecute an increasingly unpopular war that is likely to define his presidential legacy.

“He’s still commander-in-chief and he wants to do it his way,” Michael McFaul, a foreign policy expert at the Hoover Institution, said before the nationally televised speech. “But it’s too little, too late.”  Advocates of boosting troop levels, a proposal White House officials call the “surge” option, argue that more forces are needed to secure Baghdad and help rescue the war effort.

Critics fault Bush for refusing to admit the invasion was wrong, failing to commit enough forces in the first place and now opting to deepen US involvement — though only incrementally — to try to avert all-out sectarian civil war.

Bush’s challenge will be selling the plan, which calls for adding 21,500 soldiers to some 130,000 already in Iraq, to a war-weary American public despite doubts inside and outside the administration that it will make much of a difference.

Normally loath to admit mistakes, Bush did concede what most military analysts say is all too obvious — that not enough troops had been deployed to control chaos in Baghdad.

But he showed little sign of bending to critics, apparently believing history would vindicate him for a war that has killed more than 3,000 US soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis.

He has already dismissed many of the key recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, whose report last month called for a pullback of most combat forces by early 2008. Instead, Bush seems to be doing what the panel urged against — picking and choosing from its package of interlocking proposals.

Some commentators say his resistance may stem in part from resentment over the implicit condemnation by old Washington insiders like former secretary of state James Baker, a Bush family loyalist who co-chaired the group.

The group buried any mention of boosting troop numbers on page 73 of its report, and even then insisted that any increase should be short-term and only if commanders backed the idea.

When generals raised misgivings about higher casualties, overstretched forces and the Iraqi government using a US troop increase as a crutch, Bush moved quickly to replace them with military men more in step with his thinking.

Aside from a few neoconservative scholars, the leading voices pushing for a buildup have been Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and self-styled “independent Democratic” Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. Like Bush, both see Baghdad as the linchpin for stabilising Iraq. The administration seems intent, however, on keeping the troop influx limited, possibly to avoid the appearance of a last-ditch bid to pacify the capital, where there is no guarantee of success.

Should the effort fail like previous offensives, analysts believe a main culprit will be a lack of political will on the part of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri Maliki for achieving national reconciliation.

Even then, few experts think Bush would use that as political cover for starting a phased troop withdrawal that polls show the American public overwhelmingly favours.

Most expect him instead to dig in his heels against Democrats’ attempts to force him into an exit strategy, believing they would be unlikely to cut off funding to the troops as the 2008 presidential campaign revs up.

“This is a president who doesn’t change his mind easily, and he’s decided to tough it out in Iraq to the bitter end, even if it makes no sense,” said Joseph Cirincione of the Centre for American Progress, a liberal Washington think tank.

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