Advocates of a "surge" of US troops in Iraq hope to persuade President Bush that the victory he seeks there is only possible with a substantial and prolonged escalation of the US presence.
The new congressional Democratic leadership, on the other hand, is calling on Mr. Bush to resist the idea. Yet the president may not satisfy either the "large and long surge" or the "no surge" camp when he unveils his plans in a speech to the American public, likely to occur Wednesday night. Speculation has grown as Bush has consulted widely and reshuffled his Iraq diplomatic and military teams that he could opt for a modest increase – no more than 20,000 troops.
Critics say that would simply repeat past tactics that have not delivered, while advocates of a big surge say it could be worse than nothing, only exposing more US troops to danger without providing the larger numbers they say are needed to get the job done of securing the civilian population.
"We must not low-ball this," says Frederick Kagan, a military historian at Washington's American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and a prominent proponent of a "large and long" US military increase. Insisting Iraq will be costly and bloody for the United States no matter what policy is chosen, he adds, "We can pay the price and win, or pay a similar price and lose."
Nearly two months after the Iraq Study Group dismissed any rise in US troops, advocates of military escalation are calling for an increase of up to 40,000 troops over the current 140,000 on the ground. The goal would be to secure Baghdad with a large American footprint long enough to allow economic development to take hold, and to defeat insurgents in the western Al-Anbar Province.
The strategy is supported by two prominent senators – longtime troop-increase advocate John McCain and Joseph Lieberman – and Washington neoconservatives. Other senators say they could support a small increase lasting a few months. Still others condemn the idea, including Republican Chuck Hagel, who calls it "folly."
Supporters say it would finally call on the US military to do something it should have done from the beginning. "The US military has never set the task for itself of providing security," says Mr. Kagan. What he advocates "is not simply a surge of troops," he says, "but a change of mission."
The major shift in mission that Bush is expected to announce is for US soldiers to take on the task of providing security to Iraqi civilians, primarily in Baghdad, instead of leaving that to the Iraqis. "What's being prepared is actually a drastic departure" from recent strategy, says Paul Hughes, a former Army colonel who served in Iraq under the Coalition Provisional Authority.
Bush has made it increasingly clear that he is committed to achieving "victory" in Iraq. He has announced a number of diplomatic and military moves in recent days suggesting that he is lining up his team for what he sees as the defining foreign- policy effort of his last two years in office.
First, director of national intelligence John Negroponte, a seasoned diplomat and former ambassador to postwar Iraq, was moved back to the State Department to serve as deputy to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The president's new Iraq policy is expected to include a substantial new reconstruction program involving small teams of State Department officials working among Iraqis, and Mr. Negroponte is seen as a boon to its successful implementation.
Then Bush announced that Army Lt. Gen. David Petraeus will replace Gen. George Casey as commander of multinational forces in Iraq. An expert in counterinsurgency, General Petraeus agrees with "surge" advocates that securing the civilian population must come first in Iraq.
Perhaps more important, official sources say, is that Petraeus fits better with Bush's vision of "victory." General Casey advocated transferring security duties to Iraqi soldiers and was doubtful that foreign soldiers could successfully fulfill that function.
The Iraq Study Group, chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker III and former congressional leader Lee Hamilton, emphasized diplomacy and a redeployment of US forces to training Iraqi forces as a prelude to reducing the American footprint. On the other hand, the pro-escalation forces foresee the US military performing key security functions for at least the next 18 months.
And while the Iraq Study Group pointedly refrained from speaking in terms of "victory" in Iraq, the escalation protagonists insist that victory is not only still possible but necessary to halting the march of Islamic extremism in the Middle East.
"This war is still winnable," says Senator Lieberman of Connecticut.
Lieberman, who refers to himself as an Independent Democrat, spoke Friday at an AEI forum where Kagan unveiled "Choosing Victory," a report he co-authored on how to achieve success in Iraq.
Virtually all sides in the debate over a new war strategy agree that Iraq is deteriorating rapidly and the situation there may have outstripped the US ability to turn things around. But the surge advocates' focus on "victory" – and their picture of the dire consequences for US security if the US is not successful in Iraq – is much more in tune with Bush's outlook.
The reshuffling of the president's Iraq team reflects in part an effort to rid the administration of divisions in Iraq policy that existed prior to the invasion. But some officials and analysts say the disputes over policy changes remain.
Cleavage continues over surge, with some policymakers and critics saying the right kinds of US troops and equipment are not available – and that ultimately Iraq can only be secure under Iraqis themselves.
Bush, who spoke at length by videoconference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki last week, is expected to emphasize that the new security mission will be carried out with additional Iraqi security forces as well.
But surge advocates and critics tend to agree that the number of additional troops the Bush administration is considering is unlikely to be enough to make a difference.
Mr. Hughes, now a specialist in postconflict peace and stability operations at the US Institute of Peace in Washington, notes that the peacekeeping force in the Balkans was set up on the principle of one peacekeeper for every 50 civilians. That would mean 100,000 soldiers in Baghdad alone, excluding the huge Shiite sector of Sadr City.
If Bush sends 20,000 additional troops, "would we reach the number we would need? I don't think so," Hughes says. "Just sending more troops to Baghdad is like pouring more water in the sands of Al-Anbar. It's just going to disappear without accomplishing anything."