By JOSEPH L. GALLOWAY
President George W. Bush this week asked Congress and the American people to give him one more chance to get the strategy and tactics right as his war in Iraq moves into its fifth year with ever-rising costs in blood and national treasure.
His choice to command this final phase, Army Gen. David Petraeus, told senators at his confirmation hearing the day before Bush's speech that the president's mini-escalation, adding 21,500 American troops to the 130,000 already there, would take until late May - a painfully slow ratcheting up that allows the multitude of enemies in Iraq ample time to adjust their own strategy and tactics.
Petraeus said that, consequently, we wouldn't know until late this summer whether the president's gamble was paying off. He promised that if it weren't working, he'd say so.
If it isn't working, and that seems to be a pretty good bet at this point, given how many weak reeds the plan rests upon, we're likely to know well before the general tells us.
Some 15,000 of the additional U.S. troops are to be assigned to damping down the bloody sectarian murders, sectarian cleansing and suicide car-bombings that fill the streets of the Iraqi capital with more than 100 corpses daily.
Petraeus, who's already spent 32 months in Iraq as a two-star division commander and the three-star U.S. officer in charge of training the Iraqi security forces, most recently has commanded at Fort Leavenworth and supervised the writing of a new Army counter-insurgency manual.
That manual provides a formula by which to calculate the number of regular soldiers required to maintain control in an insurgency situation: 20 troops per 1,000 people. So by Petraeus' own formula, Baghdad requires approximately 140,000 friendly troops. Even if you count the Iraqi security forces that are supposed to be assigned to the job - nearly 90,000 - we'll still fall considerably short of what's needed.
The new U.S. commander in Iraq plans to parcel out the newly arriving American soldiers in small groups attached to Iraqi forces in widely scattered Baghdad neighborhoods.
How those soldiers will be supplied and supported and protected is the primary question. It's one thing for Americans to fort up in the Green Zone or at the huge U.S. base at Baghdad Airport by night and venture out by day to patrol a mean city's streets.
It's quite another for them to spend their days in those streets and their nights in vulnerable Iraqi army and police stations scattered throughout the city. Their lives will depend on Iraqi troops whose training and equipment leave much to be desired, and whose loyalty in the sectarian civil war is suspect.
Keeping them supplied and providing quick reaction forces able to respond to their 9-1-1 calls for help in the middle of the night will only put even more Americans on the most dangerous streets and roads in the world.
Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey calls the surge and those plans "a fool's errand" that almost certainly will produce many more American casualties and no great chance of success.
It's not too great a leap to look back to a chilling situation that American advisers to some South Vietnamese Army units found themselves in during that war. When a South Vietnamese battalion was surrounded by Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army regulars, the enemy would break out bullhorns and shout: "Give us the Americans and we will let you go free!"
What happened then? The best Vietnamese commanders stood and fought, the Americans by their side. Others accepted the enemy's invitation, threw down their weapons and ran for their lives, leaving the few Americans to their fate.
The night that starts happening in Baghdad, you'll know that President Bush's last best hope for victory in an un-winnable war has failed, and it's hard to imagine what he might come up with for Plan C.
It's doubtful, however, that even such a catastrophe would prompt an admission that the administration's rosy dream of planting the seeds of Jeffersonian democracy in such infertile soil and turning the Middle East on its head simply didn't work before high noon on Jan. 20, 2009, when the outgoing president can hand the bloody mess he created off to his successor.
To think differently is just one more pie-in-the-sky dream, and we've had enough of those.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Joseph L. Galloway is former senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young."