It was hardly happenstance that President Bush chose to visit Iraq's Anbar Province on Monday – and not Baghdad – to set the stage for crucial congressional deliberations on US Iraq policy.
To start, Anbar – a vast Sunni-dominated territory virtually written off a year ago as lost to extremist insurgents – represents the clearest accomplishment of the administration's strategy of having additional US troops work more closely with local populations.
But Mr. Bush's choice of Anbar also serves as a reminder of the potential consequences of a US pullout: Would Anbar be left open to the return of Al Qaeda-associated insurgents?
In fact, the emphasis on the province buttresses an argument that Bush has stressed recently: that US troops must stay in Iraq not just for the sake of Iraqis, but for US national security. (However, Bush did offer on Monday the possibility of future troop reductions, based on continued progress toward better security.)
Anbar, more so than Baghdad, is associated with the US war on terror and the fight against Al Qaeda. And in talking about Iraq, Bush has repeatedly cited Al Qaeda – and Iraq's troublesome neighbor Iran – as key reasons for staying the course.
"It's become the heart of the defense of why we should stay in Iraq for an indefinite period of time – that the consequences of withdrawal would be victory for one or both of those two" adversaries, says Rand Beers, director of the National Security Network, a Washington think tank consisting of mostly Democratic security and defense-policy specialists.
Bush's recent speeches
In recent speeches, Bush has lauded US military cooperation with Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar. Leaving now would reopen the door to Al Qaeda influences and domination, he says.
At the same time, Bush has warned that a US withdrawal from Iraq would open the way to Iranian domination – not just of Iraq, but of much of the Middle East. And that would mean the widened influence of a country that the US lists as a state sponsor of terrorism, as well as the potential for a nuclear arms race in the world's most volatile region, the president adds.
The reasons for this shift in justification for the "surge" strategy are basically two, analysts say. First, the original goal of promoting Iraqi political action and national reconciliation has not been met, even from the White House perspective.
The second reason for the shift has more to do with convincing a war-weary US public and restless Congress that the stakes in this war go well beyond uniting uncompromising Iraqi politicians.
With US soldiers dying as a result of the troop buildup but the US not seeming to get much back from Iraq's political leaders, associating the surge more closely with widely accepted US national interests – that is, defeating Al Qaeda and containing Iran – has a better chance of support. That goes for Congress as well as for the public, analysts say.
"The administration is tailoring its arguments to those most likely to achieve resonance with the American public, and focusing on Al Qaeda and Iran certainly strikes a responsive chord in the country that transcends the Republican base," says James Dobbins, director of international security and defense policy at the RAND Corp. in Arlington, Va.
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) study released Tuesday shows the Iraqi government failing 15 of 18 goals for security and political progress.
In disputing the negativity of the GAO report, the White House is emphasizing gains made at grass-roots levels and playing down the Iraqi government's inertia.
A number of other reports Congress will begin to take up this week conclude that few political goals have been met by Iraqi political leaders since the troop buildup began. Some even cast doubt on the extent to which violence has been reduced.
Gen. David Petraeus, commander of US forces in Iraq, and US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker will offer a comprehensive review of Iraq to Congress Monday. Also, a White House report to be delivered by Sept. 15 is expected to conclude there is only limited political progress, but less violence in areas where the US has boosted its presence and significantly enhanced cooperation with Sunni tribal leaders.
In the run-up to the imminent focus on Iraq, signs are growing that Bush's change in emphasis has borne fruit, both in Congress and with the general public. Some polls show support for the war effort has rebounded, in particular after recent speeches Bush has given on the dire consequences he sees of a quick withdrawal form Iraq. And after what may have been a high-water mark for "change the course" and "set a timetable for withdrawal" advocates in July, the White House appears more confident that Congress will go along with a continuation of the troop buildup into early next year.
Other ways of looking at it
But Mr. Beers – who served on the National Security Council in four administrations including the current one before leaving in 2003 over the Iraq invasion – says that while the concerns with Al Qaeda and Iran are certainly legitimate, it is less justifiable to argue that continuing the "surge" is the only or even the best way of addressing those two challenges.
"The president's argument doesn't say what else we might do or what might be more likely to happen to address these threats. It's as though all we would be doing is withdrawing," Beers says. "But you can also argue that by drawing down in Iraq, we're going to be able to go after Al Qaeda in its headquarters in Afghanistan and Pakistan."
As for Iran, he says, a drawdown of the military buildup could be accompanied by a "diplomatic surge" focusing on all Iraq's neighbors, including Iran.
Mr. Dobbins says the Al Qaeda argument is "unexceptionable" because the goal of reducing the terror network's reach in Iraq is an obtainable objective.
"It probably is feasible to, if not eradicate, then significantly diminish Al Qaeda's hold in the Sunni parts of Iraq, and it's hard to argue with that objective," he says.
The one problem he sees is that "one can also make the argument that the best way to achieve that is by us leaving," since the argument of US "occupation" would have less appeal.
But Dobbins says the reasoning to keep large numbers of US troops in Iraq to contain Iran is more problematic, simply because Iran is a major regional influence and will play a role – positive or negative – in Iraq.
"The Iran argument has considerable appeal in terms of American attitudes," he says, "but it is in fact inconsistent with stabilizing Iraq." Dobbins, who as a Bush envoy to Afghanistan in the early part of the administration worked with Iranians on stabilizing that country, says Iran's considerable influence in Iraq will mean the US will have to make a choice.
"The dilemma for the US will be either we focus on stabilizing Iraq or we try to contain Iran," he says. "But it can't be both."