Hitherto, I have refrained from wading into the argument over whether we need more troops in Iraq because I am not a military expert and felt obliged to defer to what President Bush has consistently said was the stated belief of the generals in charge that no more were needed. But the report of the Baker-Hamilton commission, and other reports yet to come from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Council and the State Department, are loosening up the thinking on this and related matters, and the generals (who can't enjoy the present state of affairs in Iraq any more than the rest of us) may share the contagion.
In any event, it seems to me that the case for more troops is now just about overwhelming. Give Rumsfeld credit for wanting to wage the war with a relatively small force, and salute Gen. Tommy Franks for toppling Hussein with one. There is nothing wrong with frugality where soldiers' lives are concerned, and Hussein's government was overthrown with remarkably few American casualties. But what ensued was not peace, but 3-1/2 years of a very different kind of war, waged against us by insurgents who realize that they do not have to win, but merely keep killing a few American soldiers every week until the American public tires of the process and forces Washington to pull the plug.
It is true that combat fatalities in Iraq, after nearly four years, are still less than half of the 6,000 we sustained, on average, every month for 40 months in World War II. But at least we were winning that war, and ultimately won it. In Iraq, the fanatical Islamic insurgency, far from diminishing, has actually grown, and has recently been supplemented by savage battles between Sunnis and Shiites in the general Iraqi population, which the president's critics are eager to call a "civil war." In these circumstances, it is not unreasonable for Americans to wonder just how a stable, democratic and pro-American Iraq is supposed to emerge.
The answer, it seems increasingly clear, is by committing more American troops. Wherever they have been used, in Iraq to date, our forces have prevailed; they are incomparably the most formidable fighters in the area. It is when they turn matters over to insufficiently trained and equipped Iraqi forces that the ground gained has been lost again to the insurgents. We must make up our minds to commit enough additional troops not only to clear Baghdad and other key cities, but to hold them until properly trained and equipped Iraqi forces can take over.
It isn't fair to insist that the Iraqis are fatally incompetent, or corrupt or whathaveyou. They have just emerged from a bloody 30-year dictatorship. Understandably, they trust their religious and tribal ties more than the vision of a unified democratic state. But even The New York Times recently reported that the parties are close to agreement on an equitable division of the oil revenues that are Iraq's only resource. Once that crucial issue is resolved, much else may follow in its wake.
It is often protested that, even if more troops are needed, America simply doesn't have any more to send. It beggars belief that a nation of 300 million could not find 20,000, or even 50,000, more soldiers if necessary. It is probably true that in the short run rotations will have to be extended, and some units will have to be sent back to Iraq for a third time. But in National Review's luminous formulation, "if there is any cause that calls for straining the military, it is an attempt to keep from losing a war."
The United States is getting a dangerous reputation for losing its wars. The last time we won one was more than half a century ago. Since then, we have settled for a stalemate in Korea, abandoned an ally and fled the field in Vietnam, and pulled our forces out of Somalia. Osama bin Laden has cited both of the latter as proof of our cowardice. What will he (and the world) conclude if we turn tail in Iraq?
As Winston Churchill warned after Munich, "This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless, by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigor, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time."