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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.
January 12, 2007
Good afternoon. The Presidents address on Wednesday night marked the culmination of a comprehensive review of our Iraq strategy. I hope to offer some insight into why certain decisions were made, and certain options not pursued. There is a lot to talk about so lets get started.
Everyone who has looked seriously at the Iraq situation reaches two conclusions: (1) failure would carry disastrous consequences for the United States; and (2) there is no magic formula for guaranteeing success; every option involves trade-offs and risks.
The consequences of failure are clear. As the President said: Radical Islamic extremists would grow in strength and gain new recruits. They would be in a better position to topple moderate governments, create chaos in the region, and use oil revenues to fund their ambitions. Iran would be emboldened in its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Our enemies would have a safe haven to launch attacks on the American people.
The Baker-Hamilton Commission said precisely the same thing: If the situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate, the consequences could be severe for Iraq, the United States, the region, and the world. Their report explained that failure in Iraq could radicalize the region -- with a strengthened and hegemonic Iran on a path to producing nuclear weapons create terrorist sanctuaries and accelerate the global al Qaeda movement.
So America must succeed in Iraq. We can all agree on this point. The question is what to do. In the course of our own strategic review process, we sought to first diagnose the core problem and then analyze different solutions. It was clear that the present course was not succeeding and that fundamental assumptions underlying our strategy had to change. (You can see some of these changed assumptions on Page 7 of the summary materials we released on Wednesday.)
A key assumption until now has been that political progress would help decrease levels of violence, strengthen the Iraqi government, and bring follow on economic and security gains. The levels of violence in 2006, however, sparked by the bombing in Samarra in February, undermined that key assumption. Without a baseline level of security, political and economic progress will not take root. And Iraqi Security Forces, though improving, need our assistance to hold areas cleared of terrorists and insurgents.
The most urgent priority is Baghdad. Eighty percent of Iraqs sectarian violence occurs within 30 miles of the capital. And the situation in Baghdad permeates outward, spurring recruitment of terrorists and extremists, and threatening the viability of Iraqi institutions, including the security institutions. Any sound strategy for success must account for the Baghdad situation and offer a realistic plan to address it.
As the President explained on Wednesday night, our earlier efforts in Baghdad failed for two reasons: 1) there were not enough Iraqi and American troops to secure neighborhoods, and 2) there were too many restrictions on the troops that were available. The new strategy specifically addresses these defects, and by gradually bringing more stability to the capital, Iraqi and American forces will provide breathing space for the political reconciliation process to advance which is the key to long term success.
I noted that Senator Carl Levin during Secretary Gates testimony today said: Increasing the number of U.S. forces in Iraq is a flawed strategy because it is based on a flawed premise that there is a military solution to the violence and instability in Iraq, when what is needed is a political solution among the Iraqi leaders and factions.
We agree with Senator Levin on the bottom line point: there is no military solution in Iraq and long-term success demands political solutions. However, our experience in Iraq shows clearly that at the present levels of violence, particularly in Baghdad, Iraqi leaders naturally hedge their bets, and ordinary Iraqis look for protection from insurgents and militias. Security in Baghdad must be addressed to enable the success we all want.
Sam, from Cincinnati, OH writes:
On the civilian side alone, for example:
The expanded civilian and PRT initiative will serve as force multipliers to Iraqi and Coalition force helping to improve the rule of law and provide targeted assistance to local communities. These efforts have proven to have the most success in providing space for moderates and ordinary Iraqis to make a stand, strengthening civil institutions, and growing local economies. So we are replicating them in a big way throughout the theater.
On the security side:
These are just some of the highlights, and I would urge you to read the summary of our strategic review (particularly pages 9-11). All of these changes build on successes and correct for failures of our past efforts and reflect more classic counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine, as encapsulated in the new COIN Manual developed by General Petraeus who has been nominated to take command of the Multi-National-Force-Iraq (MNF-I). You can access the COIN manual here: www.leavenworth.army.mil
Travis, from La Canada, CA
Some have noted that the Iraqis said they would do some of these things before, and failed to deliver. That is true. But one of the problems has been the security situation, and another has been Iraqi capacity to deliver on promises. The new strategy accounts for these issues and focuses on building Iraqi capacity to deliver on areas that are central to success. Some say that our presence is self-defeating because it creates too much dependence and delays Iraqi self-reliance. This is partially true, although a willingness to assume responsibility means nothing in the area of capacity to carry out that responsibility (something we have seen up close in Baghdad in the past six months).
The new strategy is designed to strike the right balance between focused capacity assistance, and accelerated transition giving the Iraqis all the tools they need to succeed. Do they need to start using those tools and deliver for their own people? Yes. The President was very clear on that the other night. It is time for decisive action in Baghdad.
john, from texas writes:
I mentioned the International Compact, which is an important initiative that commentars often ignore. The Compact seeks to secure a new international consensus on support and engagement with Iraq over a benchmarked 5-year timeframe. Chaired by the Iraqi government and by the United Nations, it will serve a similar function as the many "contact group" proposals which have been floated for different ways forward in Iraq. The Compact recognizes that good governance and resolution of security and political challenges must be addressed at the same time as economic reforms. A priority of the Compact will be to secure additional debt relief from Iraqs major creditors, including from the estimated $45 billion owed to Gulf Arab states. We expect the final Compact signing conference to be held in the early part of this year.
State will also request funds to provide PRT leaders with authority to fund programs through targeted assistance projects that create jobs, provide services to meet community needs, and develop the capacity to govern in an effective, sustained way. These authoriteis would be similar to the Commander's Emergency Response Program (CERP) in the Defense Department. Under CERP, brigade and battalion commanders can employ Iraqis in short-term jobs at the local level to improve education, health care, electricity, water and security. The CERP and its civilian equivalent will work in tandem to fund projects that quickly improve the quality of life of local Iraqis and provide the foundation for longer-term stability -- particularly in the most volatile areas of Baghdad, Anbar, Salah ad Din, and Diyala.
This all sounds like dry stuff. But the changes are significant and will greatly increase our ability to work with local Iraqis and effect change where it is most needed. The strategic review process enabled the State and Defense Departments to come together with new joint programs for synchronizing the civilian and military effort; this is what is needed to prevail in any counterinsurgency type operation, and the strategy announced by the President on Wednesday marks a real advance in this area. You will be able to see the line-item breakdown when our budget is submitted to Congress on February 5th.
Daniel, from Lakeville, CT
On metrics, there are many -- but your primarily focus is probably Baghdad. New operations to secure Baghdad will not yield an immediate end to suicide bombings, assassinations, or IED attacks. Our enemies will make every effort to ensure that American television screens are filled with images of death and suffering. Yet over time, we can expect to see fewer brazen acts of terror, with perpetrators brought to justice, and more trust and cooperation from Baghdads residents. General Odierno, the commander who will oversee implementation of the plan in Baghdad, has said he hopes to secure these positive trends and then pull U.S. forces to the periphery of Baghdad by the end of this summer.
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