The strategy that the president outlined Wednesday night does not represent an altogether new approach to Iraq, but a necessary adaptation of the previous strategy to changed circumstances. It is, in effect, an updating of the National Strategy for Victory in Iraq he issued in November 2005.
President Bush's prime-time address acknowledged the shortcomings of past efforts to secure Baghdad. And he implied that this new effort to do so represents a final opportunity to salvage victory in Iraq. Failure in Iraq, he warned, would be a disaster. But Mr. Bush's plan can work.
Strategy is the interplay of ends, ways, and means. Strategic thinking implies limited means. There are never enough resources to achieve all goals, so choices must be made concerning how best to apply limited resources.
In the case of Iraq, America's strategic goal is a "unified democratic federal Iraq that can govern itself, defend itself, sustain itself, and is an ally in the war on terror." The key to achieving this strategic goal is to provide security for the Iraqi people. This, in turn, requires defeating the insurgents.
Until February of last year, the key to victory was the defeat of the Sunni insurgency centered in Anbar Province. This took the form of a campaign to destroy the Sunni insurgency by depriving it of its base in the Sunni Triangle and its "ratlines" – the infiltration routes that run from the Syrian border into the heart of Iraq. The operational concept was "clear and hold."
No force can continue to fight if it is deprived of sanctuary and logistics support. Accordingly, the central goal of the US strategy before February 2006 was to destroy the ratlines following the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.
This campaign began in November 2004 with the takedown of Fallujah. Wresting Fallujah from the jihadis was critically important: Control of the town had given them crucial infrastructure to attack Iraqi and coalition targets.
The loss of Fallujah didn't cause the insurgency to collapse, but it did deprive the rebels of an indispensable sanctuary.
The coalition continued a high tempo of offensive operations. Although successful in many respects, these operations seemed like the "Whac-A-Mole" arcade game: towns were cleared of insurgents, but because of limited manpower, they could not be held. Insurgents returned once coalition forces moved on.
In February 2006, when Sunni extremists destroyed the Shiite mosque in Samarra, sectarian violence exploded, especially in Baghdad. American and Iraqi troops had to redeploy to confront the new threat, and in doing so, the gains that had been achieved against the Sunni insurgents were lost.
The new plan is a response to these changing conditions. The main reason for the so-called surge is to provide enough troops to provide security for Baghdad while regaining the initiative against the Sunni fighters in Anbar. It also recognizes that the Shiite militias causing most of the deaths in Baghdad must be neutralized.
It includes not only a military component but political and economic elements, as well. The adage – to defeat an insurgency, "win the hearts and minds" of the people – is true. But to do that, the people must have security. And to achieve security, it is often necessary to kill and capture the insurgents. Thus, military success is a necessary, if not sufficient, cause for defeating an insurgency.
This point is illustrated by an objective analysis of the Vietnam War. As Mark Moyar demonstrates in his remarkable new book, "Triumph Forsaken," the government of Ngo Dinh Diem had broken the communist insurgency in South Vietnam by 1960 by killing and capturing communist cadres in unprecedented number, leading many survivors to defect to the government's side. And in his book, "A Better War," Lewis Sorley shows how the US did the same in the late 1960s and 1970s.
Will Bush's approach work? This depends on at least three factors. The first is the adequacy of the force. Many commentators have called for troop increases of 40,000 to 50,000, but 20,000, which Bush called for, is the maximum number that can be culled from the current force. In any case, the key to success is not the number of troops but how they are used.
The second factor is the Iraqi government. Until now, the Shiite militias have been off limits. That has to change, and Bush put Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on notice that this is the case.
The third factor is Congress. Would the Democrats rather see Bush lose or the US win? Let us hope that the Demo-crats take the wise counsel of one of their own, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who reminded us the other day that the stark choice in Iraq is between victory and defeat.
• Mackubin Thomas Owens is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College. The views expressed here are his own.