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January 6, 2007
Surge Or Escalation?

Ever since the ISG made its recommendations to the White House last month, the administration has considered a surge in deployments to Iraq as a short-term boost to turn the corner on violence there. President Bush has not yet announced his new Iraq strategy, but by now most people believe it will comprise some form of the surge, especially with his replacement of the top military commanders in the theater, who opposed both the deployment of more troops and the "phased redeployment" of troops out of Iraq. However, the nature of the surge seems rather murky, especially when John McCain addressed the issue yesterday:

McCain seems to be launching his 2008 campaign by taking the role of foremost advocate of sending significantly more troops for long-term deployment to Iraq.

“There are two keys to any surge of U.S. troops: to be of value, it must substantial and it must be sustained,” he declared in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a think tank that is home to some of the most hawkish strategists on Iraq.

Just to make sure everyone in the overflow audience got the point, McCain repeated that phrase: “it must substantial and it must be sustained.”

McCain “is taking a position that is not based on putting his finger in the air and gauging the direction of the political winds,” said his ally, Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent Democrat from Connecticut who just won re-election. “He is doing what he sincerely believes is best for the national security and safety of our country…. John’s taking a gutsy position”

A surge implies a temporary change in deployment, but what McCain seems to be championing sounds much more like an escalation. An escalation means a more or less permanent commitment of troops to a theater -- in other words, a substantial and sustained increase in forces.

So why not use the word "escalation"? For those born after 1970, the term carries a lot of baggage, thanks to the Johnson administration's management of the Viet Nam War. The American forces went from a small coterie of advisors to over 500,000 American troops in a series of escalations, each of which was supposed to help the US turn the corner on the war against the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong. Escalation became known as a synonym for desperation, and little progress was seen.

That doesn't make all escalations bad or unwise, but it does point out the need for a specific mission for the additional troops. If we have decided to take on the militias, especially the Mahdi Army, then an escalation makes sense, but only if we're willing to commit as many troops as is necessary to accomplish a well-defined mission with realistic rules of engagement. If we are looking to boost internal security for a short period of time to allow the Iraqi forces to complete more training and to start working effectively, then a short-term, lower-level surge makes more sense.

The key to the issue is the mission and its rules of engagement. Until we hear from Bush and the new commanders about both, we cannot effectively debate whether we need a surge or an escalation in order to accomplish the mission.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at January 6, 2007 10:19 AM

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