Is the Election Affecting our Iraq Strategy?

Major Assaults on Hold Until After U.S. Vote (Mark Mazzetti, LAT)

The Bush administration plans to delay major assaults on rebel-held cities in Iraq until after U.S. elections in November, say administration officials, mindful that large-scale military offensives could affect the U.S. presidential race. Although American commanders in Iraq have been buoyed by recent successes in insurgent-held towns such as Samarra and Tall Afar, administration and Pentagon officials say they will not try to retake cities such as Fallouja and Ramadi — where the insurgents’ grip is strongest and U.S. military casualties could be the highest — until after Americans vote in what is likely to be an extremely close election. “When this election’s over, you’ll see us move very vigorously,” said one senior administration official involved in strategic planning, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Once you’re past the election, it changes the political ramifications” of a large-scale offensive, the official said. “We’re not on hold right now. We’re just not as aggressive.”

Any delay in pacifying Iraq’s most troublesome cities, however, could alter the dynamics of a different election — the one in January, when Iraqis are to elect members of a national assembly. With less than four months remaining, U.S. commanders are scrambling to enable voting in as many Iraqi cities as possible to shore up the poll’s legitimacy.

U.S. officials point out that there have been no direct orders to commanders to halt operations in the weeks before the November 2 U.S. election. Top administration officials in Washington are simply reluctant to sign off on a major offensive in Iraq at the height of the political season. Asked for comment, White House spokesman Taylor Gross said, “The commanders in the field will continue to make the decisions regarding military operations, and will continue to assist the Iraqi people in the pursuit of a more peaceful and safer Iraq.”

Pentagon officials said they see a benefit to waiting before an offensive in the so-called Sunni Triangle, the insurgent-dominated region north and west of Baghdad. That would allow more time for political negotiations and targeted airstrikes in Fallouja. “We’re having more impact with our airstrikes than we had expected,” said a senior Defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We see no need to rush headlong with hundreds of tanks into Fallouja right now.”

Because U.S. commanders no longer have carte blanche to run military operations inside Iraq, they must seek approval from interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who has his own political future to consider — even though he owes his position to the U.S. U.S. officials said Allawi had backed a broad plan to retake insurgent-controlled cities in Iraq before the January election. Allawi approved the recent successful U.S. offensive in Samarra, which U.S. commanders considered necessary only after a local government installed by Allawi buckled under constant attack by insurgents.

While I have no doubt that the upcoming election is a factor in public policy decisions, even those involving the war, I’m rather skeptical of this report. For one thing, it wouldn’t be that difficult to find someone willing to come out on the record with the charges if they were true. More importantly, this flies in the face of reality on the ground. U.S. forces have engaged in rather significant operations as recently as last week and they’re doing air strikes now. The argument that they want to maximize the impact of the air strikes before committing ground troops is perfectly plausible, in that’s how the U.S. has conducted every war for the past forty-odd years. Moreover, from a cynical perspective, one would think the political calculation would be precisely the opposite. It would almost certainly redound to Bush’s benefit to take decisive military action as the elections approach, as it would wrap him in the commander-in-chief mantle and put Kerry on the defensive, having to choose between praising the move or criticizing it when our troops are in harm’s way.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. LJD says:

    If the military acts now, and is successful, will the action be criticized as being politically motivated? Certainly we will hear about it if it is not successful.

    If the action waits until after the election, is successful, and Kerry is elected, will he take credit for it, or change his tune on the war(again)?

    If the action waits, and Bush is re-elected, will he be criticized for not acting sooner?

    If Kerry is elected, and is forced to reinstate the draft, doesn’t he get a free pass by blaming the “failed Iraq policy” on the President?

    This is the pandora’s box of politicizing the global war on terror. At some point we must find some common ground. The terrorists and our foreign critics are having a field day with all of this B.S.