What is the oil-spot strategy?

Everybody has an oil-spot strategy these days.

If you're a regular Joe or Josephine doing laundry, your oil-spot strategy is something like: Apply Tide to Go or Spray 'n Wash to oil-stained shirts 20 minutes before throwing them in the washing machine.

If you're a mechanic, your oil-spot strategy is: Keep some kitty litter handy in the event that the crank case leaks.

Oil-spot strategies are so popular that the Bush administration actually has two of them.

The Bush administration's oil-spot strategy is: When using the U.S. military to spread peace, freedom and democracy throughout the world, start with the spots that have lots of oil.

I kid because I love.

Actually, the Bush administration's oil-spot strategy is a war-fighting concept designed to thwart the Iraqi insurgency.

Up until quite recently, the U.S. military strategy for defeating the Iraqi insurgency has been a reactive one. Someone shoots at us and we react by pouring as much firepower onto them as possible. If we can kill insurgents more quickly than the insurgency can find new ones, the strategy goes, then we eventually will win.

The problem is that the strategy doesn't work. Dumping hot steel and explosives on Iraqis for the past three years has killed countless insurgents, true. But it hasn't slowed the insurgency one bit. In fact, the insurgency has only gotten stronger since the summer of 2003.

That's due in large part to the fact that the United States' reliance on overwhelming force has alienated many of the Iraqi civilians among whom the insurgents live, operate and hide. Nobody wants to be subjected to foreign military checkpoints, raids or body searches — or have bombs landing near them in the middle of the night.

Critics of the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq War often call it a new Vietnam. One of the striking similarities between the two wars is the belief among U.S. strategists that the overwhelming superiority of U.S. firepower can stop an insurgency. Just like with the insurgents in Iraq, the United States killed communist fighters in Vietnam much faster than they killed us. American forces won nearly every engagement and every major battle. Yet we lost the war because regardless of what we did, the communist insurgency kept, um, insurging.

The oil-spot strategy consists of a shift away from Vietnam-style "let's shoot them into submission" fighting. It comes from the belief that the way for an army to defeat an insurgency is to win over the population. The way to win over the "hearts and minds" of the people is to make them safe and prosperous.

Oil-spot thinking goes like this: Instead of chasing insurgents, the bulk of U.S. and Iraqi forces should move into neighborhoods. They'll secure the streets and win over civic and tribal leaders by helping them with public works projects. They will continue to retaliate harshly against insurgent attacks, but, unlike in the past, insurgent hunts won't be the only time that the Iraqi population sees U.S. and Iraqi forces.

The idea is to make living in these secured neighborhoods so comfy that the citizens of the neighborhoods will grow intolerant of the insurgents whose presence threatens that comfort.

What does the phrase "oil spot" actually mean? Well, the idea is that once an area is secured, it will spread naturally, kind of like an oil spot.

It's a weak and weird metaphor, I know, but I didn't make it up, so don't blame me.

The model for this "hearts and minds" counterinsurgency strategy is Britain's successful thwarting of the communist insurgency in Malaya (now Malaysia) from 1948 to 1960. The most famous study of that conflict is a book by U.S. Army Maj. John Nagl called Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam: Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife. In it, Nagl notes that Britain's military was successful in Malaya because it was able to change its strategy from "kill as many commies as possible" to "team up with Malayan government to win hearts and minds" — an adjustment that the much bigger, much stronger U.S. military was not able to make in Vietnam.

The loudest proponent of this strategy is Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., a Vietnam vet and professor. He wrote about it in the September/October 2005 issue of Foreign Affairs. Following his piece in Foreign Affairs, elements of the oil-spot strategy have started showing up in Bush's speeches.

Whether it's a strategy that we actually stick to remains to be seen. Old habits die hard.