President Bush, characteristically, is not leveling with the public about the risks he is taking with his plan to "surge" more U.S. forces into Iraq. Jack Keane, a retired Army vice chief of staff and a leading proponent of the strategy, is more frank. Here is what he told Charlie Rose earlier this month:
"If we have to go into Sadr City" -- a Shiite stronghold in Baghdad -- "what will happen will be rather dramatic. The Badr Corps and the Jaish al-Mahdi [two major Shiite militias], which are not aligned, will align. And they'll also be able to align the vigilante groups, which are essentially protecting the neighborhoods and causing some mischief and havoc. They'll all get aligned, and we'll have to contend with about 70,000 people under arms in one of the heavily and most densely populated areas of Baghdad."
Read that again. Then repeat after me: Uh-oh.
Painfully aware that the Iraq war has given commentators a lesson in humility, I offer the following assessment with no certainty at all but with the hope of at least contributing to clarity: The Bush Surge is unlikely to work, but Congress should not try to stop it.
Going to war against the Shiites would be a nightmare, and everyone knows it. American forces could soon find themselves in firefights not only with tens of thousands of armed and angry Shiite militants but also with Iraqi police and army units, in or out of uniform. The Pentagon could win such a conflict militarily, Keane told Rose, "but in my judgment we should avoid it at all costs, and try to resolve it politically."
In effect, Keane appears to be saying that the plan works at an acceptable cost only if the United States can pacify the Shiite militants without forcibly confronting them. To me, and possibly also to the Sadrists, this looks like what gamblers call a bluff.
So why shouldn't the Democratic Congress block such an unpromising strategy? Three reasons point, I think, independently in the same direction.
First, the Constitution. It provides for one commander-in-chief, not 536.
A determined president can evade all but the tightest congressional attempts to override his military decisions, and any sufficiently tight congressional strictures are likely to emasculate the presidency and fracture the Congress.
Second, politics. Blocking the president's last-resort plan would divide the country for years to come. Many Republicans would believe that the war was winnable and that Democrats lost it. If the United States is going to leave Iraq, it should do so when even Republicans agree that there is little reason to stay -- which they will, if Bush's Hail Mary pass fails.
Third, morality. America has not quite discharged its debt to Iraq.
Apart from evacuating as many as possible of those Iraqis who personally aided the American effort, the United States can do nothing for moderate and peace-loving Iraqis if the Baghdad government is determined to press or abet a sectarian agenda. A tragedy will unfold. But if there is any chance that the Iraqi government might yet be salvageable, then the United States owes it to the Iraqis to find out.
Once the surge takes place, Americans are likely to know in a matter of months whether the Maliki government is serious about pacifying Shiite militants, coming to terms with Sunnis, and cleaning up the ministries and security forces. If not, Washington can begin withdrawing forces and shift into damage-control mode -- not without guilt, but at least with certainty.
Politically it makes sense. Morally it seems outrageous to advocate sending troops, or more accurately allowing troops to be sent, on a disastrous course of action that you believe will result in a good number of them coming home in flag draped caskets without a reward worthy of their sacrifice.