This week, President Bush is expected to give a major speech announcing a new strategy in Iraq. This is an excellent opportunity for the administration to announce a big strategic change that could dramatically improve America's prospects in Iraq. Unfortunately, however, no one has been discussing the one option that would actually have this effect.
The president's current opportunity should not be underestimated. As weak as he seems, politically, President Bush has no real competition in setting policy for Iraq. Between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, the Iraq Study Group had its 15 minutes of fame and faded away without having any significant effect on the debate over the war.
The Democrats who take control of Congress this month have no unified message on Iraq other than a vague, general defeatism, and they offer no definite plan for what America should do --except, of course, their usual plan to carp about whatever the administration does. So the president has the ability to retake the initiative, both politically and militarily.
What will he do?
An internal Pentagon review of the war, requested by Bush as part of his attempt to sidestep the Iraq Study Group, has considered three options: "go big," "go long" or "go home." Going big means dramatically increasing the number of U.S. combat troops in Iraq, giving us the ability to further subdue Sunni areas like the Anbar Province and enabling us to crack down on the Shiite militias who are stoking Iraq's sectarian conflict. Going long means committing more resources to the long-term process of training Iraqi forces and building the stability of the Iraqi government. Going home means withdrawing U.S. troops.
We all know Bush isn't going to accept the third option. America is not going to go home. Going long might be a nice aspiration, but Bush has only two years left in office. He has no idea who his successor will be and what he (or she) will do. If he wants to succeed in Iraq, he has to do something now. So we can expect President Bush to go big, ordering a "surge" in U.S. combat troops in Iraq.
But there is another, far more effective option: go wide.
Going wide means recognizing that Iraq is just one front in a regional war against an Islamist Axis centered in Iran -- and we cannot win that war without confronting the enemy directly, outside of Iraq.
Going wide means recognizing that the conflict in Iraq is fueled and magnified by the intervention of Iran and Syria. One of the reasons the Iraq Study Group report flopped was that its key recommendation -- its one unique idea -- was for America to negotiate with Iran and Syria in order to convince these countries to aid in the "stabilization" of Iraq. This proposal wasn't so much argued to death as it was laughed to death, because it is clear that Iran and Syria have done everything they can to de-stabilize Iraq, supporting both sides of the sectarian conflict there.
It is obvious that both regimes have a profound interest in an American failure and retreat in Iraq. After all, if America can successfully use force to replace a hostile dictatorship with a free society, then the Iranian and Syrian regimes are doomed. So as a matter of elementary self-preservation, they have done everything they can to plunge Iraq into chaos, supporting guerrillas and militias on all sides of the sectarian conflict.
Just last week, a U.S. official confirmed new evidence "that Iran is working closely with both the Shiite militias and Sunni Jihadist groups." Most ominously, Iran has brazenly provided training and weapons to the Shiite militias -- who carry rifles straight off the assembly lines of Iranian weapons factories -- and these militias have emerged in the last year as the greatest threat to U.S. troops and to the Iraqi government.
How can we quell the conflict in Iraq, further suppress the Sunni insurgents, and begin to dismantle the Shiite militias if we don't to anything to stop those who are funding, training, and supporting these enemies? Just as we can't eliminate terrorism without confronting the states who sponsor terrorism, so we can't suppress the Sunni and Shiite insurgencies in Iraq without confronting the outside powers who support these insurgents.
Every day, we see the disastrous results of fighting this war narrowly inside Iraq while ignoring the external forces that are helping to drive it. To fight one Shiite militia tied to Iran -- Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army -- we have recently signaled our support for an Iraqi political coalition that includes another Shiite militia tied to Iran, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim's Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and its Badr Brigades.
And so it should be no surprise that a recent U.S. military raid on Hakim's headquarters netted two Iranian diplomats and members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards -- the outfit responsible for supporting global terrorism. That's what happens when we fight the symptoms in Iraq rather than fighting the disease.
Going wide also means recognizing that more is at stake in this war than just the fate of Iraq. This is a war to determine who and what will dominate the Middle East. Will this vital region be dominated by a nuclear-armed Iran, working to spread Islamic fascism? Or will America be able to exert its military influence and political ideals in the region?
This is a momentous question. But observe that the only major foreign-policy debate today is about what to do in Iraq. The anti-war left has not succeeded in inducing America to withdraw in defeat from the Middle East -- not yet. But they have succeeded in narrowing our mental focus, inducing us to talk endlessly about what is happening inside Iraq, about whether or not we need more troops there, or whether we need to throw our support to a new political coalition within the Iraqi parliament, or whether we should put more emphasis on Anbar or Baghdad, and on and on--while we ignore the big picture of the Middle East.
The big picture is Iran's attempt to establish itself as a regional superpower, spreading its system of religious totalitarianism and rule by terror across the Middle East. Iraq is one piece in this malignant mosaic -- but it is only one piece. The Iranians seek to extend their control over the region by supporting Shiite Islamist militias in Iraq. But they are also trying to achieve their goal by propping up the Assad regime in Syria, by arming Hezbollah in Lebanon, by arming and funding Hamas in the Palestinian territories, by hosting Holocaust denial conferences in an attempt to justify a war to destroy Israel, by harboring fugitive Al Qaeda leaders, and by supporting terrorists and anti-American strongmen (such as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez) around the world.
In this context, to try to win the war just by sending more troops to Baghdad is like trying to save a patient by removing a tumor in his lung when the cancer has already metastasized through his entire body.
A few of our leaders have put together the big picture. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, for example, Sen. Joe Lieberman warned that "while we are naturally focused on Iraq, a larger war is emerging. On one side are extremists and terrorists led and sponsored by Iran, on the other moderates and democrats supported by the United States." Similarly, President Bush warned us last year that "the Iranian regime has clear aims: they want to drive America out of the region, to destroy Israel, and to dominate the broader Middle East."
But these leaders have so far avoided advocating the use of military force against Iran. No one is willing to follow the implications of the big picture to the only rational conclusion: we are already in a regional war with Iran, and we need to start fighting it as a regional war. And the most effective place to fight that war is at its center, by targeting the Islamist regime in Tehran.
Instead, our current policy is a bizarre, irrational holdover from the Cold War. In a New York Daily News op-ed, for example, Michael Rubin assures us that confronting Iran "need not mean military action." Instead, he advocates a policy of stronger words, from beefed up Radio Free Europe-style broadcasts to rhetoric such as the "Axis of Evil." His most telling recommendation is this one: "Just as Ronald Reagan championed striking shipyard workers in Poland in 1981, so too should Bush support independent Iranian trade unions."
Rubin is advocating a strategy I have called Cold War II: fighting Iran the way we fought the Soviet Union, through indirect battles against insurgent proxies (the real parallel between Iraq and Vietnam) and through moral support for Iranian dissidents. But this is brinksmanship without a brink. The reason we had to fight the Soviets indirectly was because they had thousands of nuclear weapons aimed at us. There is no reason to fear such an escalation in a battle against Iran. In fact, the gruesome irony of today is that Iran may soon be able to threaten us with nuclear weapons but only if we continue to act as if they already possessed a nuclear deterrent.
The fact is that we are fighting the wrong war in the wrong place, though not in the way critics of that war complain. We are trying to fight a regional war by limiting ourselves to a local conflict and we are fighting that war in Baghdad, when it has its source in Damascus and Tehran.
There is only one way to correct this massive strategic blunder -- and that is to go wide.