On Wednesday night in Washington, U.S. President George W. Bush delivered the most important speech of his presidency — his long-awaited “new strategy” for Iraq. In fact, much of its key provisions had been leaked to the press. And upon close examination, it is difficult to see where the strategy heralds a major departure.

Most significantly, the fundamental dilemma for the United States remains: It (and the world) cannot afford to see Iraq collapse into chaos and success depends on a government emerging from the rubble of Baghdad to take control of the country, but there is no sign that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is prepared to do that, or that the U.S. can force him to do so.

Mr. Bush’s new approach consists of three pillars. The first is the introduction of over 20,000 more U.S. troops to help stabilize Baghdad and “help the Iraqis break the current cycle of violence.” Baghdad is key because 80 percent of the sectarian violence occurs within 45 kilometers of the capital. According to Mr. Bush, “This violence is splitting Baghdad into sectarian enclaves and shaking the confidence of all Iraqis.”

Mr. Bush conceded that previous efforts to end the violence had failed because “there were not enough troops to secure neighborhoods that had been cleared of terrorists and insurgents,” and “there were too many restrictions on the troops we did have.” Now, the restraints on numbers and tactics will be lifted.

While the U.S. is increasing its presence, the real weight is to be born by the Iraqis, and this is the second pillar of his new approach: the establishment of “benchmarks” to ensure that Iraq takes responsibility for its future. As Mr. Bush explained, “America’s commitment is not open-ended. If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people.”

The third pillar is Mr. Bush’s pledge to “disrupt the attacks on our forces. We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.” This is a potentially ominous promise as it threatens to widen the war in the region. In recent raids, coalition forces have detained a number of Iranians, claiming that they were tied to terror attacks and the insurgency. This could provide the pretext for military action against Tehran.

The president is right to argue that a retreat now would risk the collapse of Iraq and constitute a blow to U.S. credibility in the region and around the world. But the policy faces a number of serious — if not crippling — obstacles.

The first is the lack of support within the U.S. The new Democratic leadership in Congress has made its opposition plain. More worrisome for Mr. Bush is increasing resistance from his Republican party; potential presidential candidates and senators concerned about their own 2008 electoral prospects are distancing themselves from him. Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican and likely presidential candidate, said the speech “represents the most dangerous foreign-policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it’s carried out.”

Most troubling of all, many Americans agree. One poll taken earlier this week shows 70 percent of Americans oppose sending more troops, and they don’t think an increase will help stabilize the situation in Iraq. Resistance will increase: Mr. Bush conceded that more troops embracing a more aggressive strategy will result in more violence and yet more casualties on top of the 3,000 lives of U.S. soldiers already lost.

The second fundamental problem is the ability of the Iraqis to “step up.” As Mr. Bush admitted, any U.S. support for the war effort depends on Iraqis taking responsibility for their country. While his speech outlined a series of steps Iraq would take to shoulder that burden, there was no indication of the timeline nor of what the U.S. would do if Baghdad failed. Iraq has been trying to build up the forces it needs to stabilize the country; those efforts have not succeeded in four years.

In comments to the Senate Foreign Relations committee the day after the president’s speech, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice admitted there had been times when the Iraqis haven’t performed in the past. Prime Minister Maliki has shown no inclination to confront and disarm the Shiite militias that perpetuate the violence (and he may not want to since his support comes from the Shiites). Yet that is the “restriction” on troop operations that Mr. Bush has said has been lifted.

The biggest problem for Mr. Bush is a contradiction: The Iraqi government knows that the U.S. president will not accept defeat; indeed, if the stakes are as high as Mr. Bush explained, then he cannot afford to leave. That knowledge provides Mr. Maliki with the means to resist or ignore benchmarks.

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