The first of 21,500 additional American troops are set to arrive in Iraq as early as next week – a prospect that could allow President Bush to blunt congressional opposition to his new plan while reassuring allies in the region that the US is not about to give up the fight.
But what had been billed ahead of Mr. Bush's speech as a major strategy shift is turning out to be more a set of tactical adjustments for addressing Iraq's deteriorating security.
More US troops, primarily in Baghdad, will do the job of providing security to Iraqi civilians that the Iraqi Security Forces have not been able to do. That is supposed to give the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki breathing room to deliver on a set of crucial political and economic policies to foster national reconciliation.
Yet doubts have surfaced quickly over whether a relatively modest rise in US troops in a society already deeply divided along sectarian lines will do anything other than expose them to greater danger; or whether Mr. Maliki can or wants to deliver on the "benchmarks" that Bush has laid out.
"Basically, it's old wine in new bottles," says Ted Galen Carpenter, a national- security expert at the Cato Institute in Washington who was to testify on Iraq before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday. "It's some new tactics and things on a slightly larger scale, but it's certainly not a new strategy."
With his speech to the American people Wednesday night, Bush addressed a skeptical audience that has grown weary of the war. The public had been led to believe – the president acknowledged as much – that US involvement would be winding down by now. Although Bush said the stepped-up commitment and the addition of troops and funding are not "open-ended," the plan essentially deepens US involvement in Iraq at a time when Bush had expected to be drawing it down.
An ABC/Washington Post poll done after the president's speech found that nearly two-thirds of Americans reject the "troop surge" plan, while a new high – 57 percent – said the United States is losing in Iraq.
But Bush stood firm on his vision of a secure and democratic Iraq denying a base to Islamic terrorists – and thus on his depiction of "success" of the mission there being key to US national security. Reminding the American people that on 9/11 they "saw what a refuge for terrorists could bring to our own cities," Bush placed the war in Iraq at the center of "the decisive ideological struggle of our time."
Many experts agree with the president that American failure in Iraq and a quick withdrawal would be a disaster – for regional stability, for the war on terror and the boon it would provide to Al Qaeda, and for Sunni Arab allies fearing a "surge" of a political and influential sort by Iran – not to mention for the Iraqi people who would be very likely to face a full-blown civil war.
"Al Qaeda is salivating as they look at Iraq. They see it as an opportunity for them to re-create the cozy environment in which they operated in Afghanistan, and the president rightly emphasized that," says Danielle Pletka, a foreign-policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
Yet far from emphasizing regional diplomatic overtures as key to addressing the war, as outside experts including the Iraq Study Group have recommended, Bush made little mention of diplomacy – other than to say that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice leaves Friday for the region.
He instead took a confrontational tone toward Iran and Syria – two countries that experienced diplomats like former secretary of State James Baker say should be engaged in efforts to stem Iraq's violence. He also challenged Iraq's neighbors to make new financial commitments to Iraq.
Yet Secretary Rice said prior to her own Senate testimony Thursday that the president's new plan does emphasize regional diplomacy – but a different diplomacy, with emphasis on reformers and those promoting democracy, instead of the old approach of talking with all interested parties.
"We are anchoring our efforts in Iraq within a regional diplomatic strategy, as the Iraq Study Group recommended," Rice said at a briefing Thursday, noting support for the Iraqi government's efforts to craft an international compact with the international community. But she added, "Our regional diplomacy is based on the substantially changed realities in the Middle East," with the US focused on "the many reformers and responsible leaders who seek to advance their interests peacefully, politically, and diplomatically."
Even some members of Congress and experts who support the plan say the chances of it succeeding are 50-50 at best. A major concern is the emphasis Bush is placing on the role of the Iraqis in his plan and what almost sounds like a US willingness to follow their lead.
In her comments at the briefing Thursday, Rice continued that theme, saying, "The Iraqis have devised their own strategy – political, economic, and military – and our efforts will support theirs."
But some analysts are uneasy with how that approach appears to leave "success" hostage to the Iraqis' actions and commitment to healing their own divisions.
"In a perfect world, I would not have so strongly emphasized the role of the Iraqis, and for two reasons," says Ms. Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute. "First, the Iraqis have not stepped up to the plate so far, so I hate to make them the linchpin of whether we succeed or not. But also," she adds, "it's important for the American people to understand why winning in Iraq is essential to our national interest. Forget about the Iraqis, we need to win for our own national security."
Rice emphasizes that it is Iraqis who ultimately will decide "whether Iraq will be characterized by national unity or sectarian conflict." And reiterating the president's statement that his commitment to Iraq is "not open-ended," she says that "Americans' patience is limited."
But Mr. Carpenter of the Cato Institute says this merely underscores an "inherent contradiction" in Bush's Iraq strategy. "Either it is an unimaginable disaster if the US leaves without victory, in which case you stay no matter what for national security reasons, or this commitment is 'not open-ended' which implies we would withdraw at some point with or without victory," he says. "You can't have it both ways."