December 18, 2006 -- OUR military should come with a can't-miss-it label: Think Before Using. Faced with calls - some sincere, others politically desperate - to rush more soldiers to Baghdad, our overstretched Army is ready to salute and do as the president orders.
But the Army leadership has one reasonable request: A clear mission.
Here in Washington, the brigade of civilian "experts" insists that the answer to our Iraq problem is to surge our forces from stateside bases back to Baghdad to restore security. Sounds good . . . until you ask them exactly how they would use those troops.
What would the specific tasks be? "Restore security" is too vague - we need to identify no-nonsense objectives. And which new tactics would be authorized? Would the rules of engagement change?
How would we handle prisoners, given that a crackdown would generate tens of thousands (and the Iraqi system releases the worst offenders)? What if the Maliki government rejects our plan?
At that point, the think-tank boys give you a deer-in-the-headlights look and spurt empty generalities. Our military is supposed to figure out the pesky details.
But it's the details that make the difference between succeeding and failing. If you don't nail down the goals - and the methods to reach them - you're ducking the make-or-break issues. Our soldiers can't evade such questions.
Generalities and platitudes won't fix Iraq. But they will kill our men and women in uniform to no good purpose. Before we send them on such a difficult mission, we should at least be willing to face the difficult questions.
Army generals worry that frantic politicos want to send more troops to Iraq as a p.r. stunt, to appear to be taking decisive action. Our uniformed leadership is rightly loathe to have our troops used to give anyone's approval ratings a temporary boost. They'll do what they're ordered to do and do it well. They just want the mission to have a chance of success that justifies the human and strategic cost.
Could an increase of 20,000 to 40,000 troops make a difference?
Yes - but only if they're assigned a clear, achievable mission and our government stands behind them solidly as they carry it out. Sending more troops in the vague hope that it will magically improve the situation would be a travesty.
Iraq isn't hopeless - but it's harder every day to maintain hope. The number of troops certainly matters, but, as this column long has argued, the vital issue is how our troops are used. If we're serious about defeating our enemies this time, more troops could help. But there's no excuse for simply deploying more IED targets in uniform.
Which brings us to the one approach that could make Baghdad a secure, livable city: Zero tolerance.