Even top advocates for the "surge," such as retired Army Gen. Jack Keane and neoconservative activist Frederick W. Kagan, have argued that U.S. troop levels must be increased by at least 30,000 for 18 months or more to bring security to Baghdad, what they call a "precondition" for any successful outcome.
"Any other option is likely to fail," Keane and Kagan wrote in an Op-Ed article in the Washington Post on Dec. 27, 2006.
So, the more modest escalation of up to 20,000 soldiers would appear to represent what might be called "Operation: Save Bush's Legacy," with the goal of postponing the inevitable until 2009 when American defeat can be palmed off on a new President.
Right now, Bush seems caught between his determination to stave off admission of failure and the shortage of U.S. troops available to throw into the conflict in Iraq. Just to reach a 20,000-troop increase, Bush would have to delay the scheduled departure of two Marine regiments now deployed in Anbar Province. [ See NYT, Dec. 29, 2006]
The escalation to 160,000 troops, from the current 140,000, also would be hard to maintain for long, since the Pentagon has warned that existing troop levels in Iraq already are straining the U.S. military and forcing repeated tours for soldiers and Marines.
Yet all the signs point to Bush going in that direction. Over the past few weeks, he even appears to be orchestrating a slow-motion purge of senior military leaders who oppose the "surge" and instead favor a phased withdrawal.
First, Bush fired Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Nov. 8, just two days after Rumsfeld sent Bush a memo suggesting a "major adjustment" in Iraq War policy that would include "an accelerated drawdown of U.S. bases" from 55 to five by July 2007 with remaining U.S. forces only committed to Iraqi areas that request them.
"Unless they [the local Iraqi governments] cooperate fully, U.S. forces would leave their province," Rumsfeld wrote in his Nov. 6 memo.
Proposing an option similar to a plan enunciated by Democratic Rep. John Murtha, Rumsfeld suggested that the commanders "withdraw U.S. forces from vulnerable positions -- cities, patrolling, etc. -- and move U.S. forces to a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) status, operating from within Iraq and Kuwait, to be available when Iraqi security forces need assistance."
And in what could be read as an implicit criticism of Bush's lofty rhetoric about transforming Iraq and the Middle East, Rumsfeld said the administration should "recast the U.S. military mission and the U.S. goals (how we talk about them) -- go minimalist." [NYT, Dec. 3, 2006]
Though many Americans viewed Rumsfeld as the personification of Bush's "tough-guy" strategy in the Middle East, the Defense Secretary's downfall may have been caused by his going wobbly on the war.
Washington insiders also may have been wrong when they interpreted Bush's selection of former CIA Director Robert Gates as a concession to the "realists" advocating a disengagement from Iraq. It may actually have been the opposite -- the replacement of a disillusioned Rumsfeld with a dutiful Gates.
The "conventional wisdom" was misguided, too, when it assumed that Bush would interpret the Democratic victory on Nov. 7 as a sign to begin winding down the Iraq War. Instead, Bush signaled his disdain for anyone suggesting a troop withdrawal.
In Amman, Jordan, on Nov. 30, Bush mocked the expected recommendations from the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, headed by longtime Bush Family adviser James Baker who considered a troop drawdown combined with a revived Israeli-Palestinian peace process and direct talks with Iran and Syria as the only realistic course.
But Bush declared that U.S. forces would "stay in Iraq to get the job done," adding "this business about graceful exit just simply has no realism to it whatsoever."
When the Iraq Study Group issued its formal report on Dec. 6, Bush gave it a cool reception and indicated it would be only one of several reports on Iraq that he would consider. Bush said he wanted Gates to undertake a review with the U.S. generals.
During a classified briefing at the Pentagon in December, Bush then reportedly made clear to the brass that he had no interest in finding a way out of Iraq. Gen. James T. Conway, the Marine commandant, described Bush's message as: "What I want to hear from you is how we're going to win, not how we're going to leave."
Soon, there was a drumbeat from White House allies and from neoconservative circles for a military escalation, not a gradual withdrawal. That suggestion, however, was countered by a Pentagon leak revealing that the Joint Chiefs of Staff opposed an escalation because they doubted it could achieve any lasting strategic objective.
Bush, who has always insisted that he listens to his generals on military matters such as troop levels, reacted to their resistance to the "surge" with a purge.
The first to be pushed to the door was Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East who suddenly announced that he was accelerating his retirement which would take effect in March. Abizaid, who speaks fluent Arabic, was criticized by some in Washington for being too concerned about Arab sensibilities.
Getting the bum's rush with Abizaid will be Gen. George Casey, the top commander in Iraq who had called the idea of a troop escalation unnecessary and possibly counterproductive. The New York Times reported that Casey would be replaced in February or March, several months ahead of schedule.
"As Baghdad spun further out of control [in 2006], some of the President's advisers now say, Mr. Bush grew concerned that General Casey, among others, had become more fixated on withdrawal than victory," the Times reported. [NYT, Jan. 2, 2007]
By ousting "surge" opponents -- from Rumsfeld at the Pentagon to the top commanders in the Middle East -- Bush and his neoconservative aides in Washington appear to be taking personal control of the Iraq War strategy.
The President seems determined to put in place a military hierarchy that will fall in line with his edicts, rather than disagree with him.
The Iran Gamble
But less clear is whether Bush will stop at a 20,000-troop escalation in Iraq or whether he will "double-down" his Middle East bet further by expanding the war beyond Iraq's borders to confront other U.S. adversaries in Syria and Iran.
Along with Israeli leaders, Bush has declared that Iranian progress on a possible nuclear bomb is unacceptable. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has even called the prospect an "existential threat" to Israel.
But Bush and Olmert are facing a ticking clock if they want to act before they lose one of their few remaining international allies. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has agreed to resign from his post sometime in the spring.
So, with Bush purging his regional military commanders by March -- and presumably replacing them with more pliable generals -- the next few months could prove to be crucial for the future of the Middle East.
Though Bush may yet back away from the idea of expanding the war beyond Iraq, his apparent decision to escalate U.S. troop levels there suggests that he will do whatever he can -- even if it bloats the death toll -- to escape the opprobrium of having committed perhaps the greatest strategic blunder by any President in U.S. history.
With 3,000 American soldiers already dead along with possibly a half million or more Iraqis, Bush is determined to escalate the war in the Middle East into a pitched battle for his presidential legacy.