The Baker Commission report calls for a phased withdrawal of combat forces in Iraq and for the United States to talk to adversarial neighboring countriesthat is, Iran and Syriaabout playing a more constructive role in that countrys civil war. If his rhetoric before the release of the report is any indication, President Bush will pretend to adjust his Iraq policy but spurn the commissions main recommendations. From this inflexible man, that course is not surprising.
The president, somewhere in a parallel universe, continues to talk about victory, despite a clear warning from then soon-to-be-sacked Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that he should alter his failed strategy in Iraq and begin downplaying expectations in case that strategy change didnt work. Last week, the president alluded to the need to make changes in the policy, but seemingly only for cosmetic public relations reasons and prodded by the imminent release of the Baker report. The president said, We will continue to be flexible, and well make the changes necessary to succeed. But theres one thing Im not going to do: Im not going to pull our troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete. Later, he declared, We can accept nothing less than victory for our children and our grandchildren. The president has thus diminished his expectations only from mission accomplished to mission complete.
The president seems to be virtually alone in his intention to pretty much stay-the-course without actually retaining the phrase. Everyone else in Washington is ready to head for the lifeboats or at least move to the deck where theyre stored. Even Senator John McCain (R-AZ), who has said more troops will be needed to win, has left himself a way to cut and run. McCain has said that if no more troops are sentthe presidents policy has heretofore shunned such significant escalation, at least avoiding deepening the hole of an unpopular warit would be immoral to risk the lives of the insufficient numbers of existing troops merely to delay defeat.
But although the president appears to have stopped digging he still is not ready to climb from the hole because the legacy of his entire administration is at stake. Unrealistically, he is hanging on, stalling for time, and hoping for a miracle to allow him to turn likely defeat into victory. That vain hope, by a stubborn man, seems to be based on the possibility of training Iraqi security forces faster. Even if the U.S. military is capable of doing so, however, this effort will, in the long run, make the situation worse. Because many of the security forces are more loyal to ethnic, religious, and tribal groups than to a unified Iraq, the United States is merely training combatants for the accelerating civil war. Of course, even if the security forces would fight for a unified Iraq instead of killing members of other groups, it is doubtful that they could suppress an insurgency that even the best army in the world could not defeat. In fact, the U.S. military has long indicated that there is no military solution to this problem.
In 2007 and 2008, the president will run up against powerful bipartisan opposition to the war. The Republicans, thrown out of a congressional majority in 2006 because of the war, realize that they could lose even more congressional seats and the presidency in 2008 if a significant U.S. troop presence remains in the middle of a worsening civil war. The winner of this likely clash between the president and his party will determine when, and not if, the United States withdraws from Iraq. If the president doesnt withdraw, the next Democratic president will.
The Democrats are also rhetorically pressuring the president to leave, but may secretly hope that he stays, thus ensuring their electoral sweep in 2008. If they are smart, the Democrats will give the president just enough rope to figuratively hang himself. They will provide all the funding he wants so that he cant say that they lost Iraqas Henry Kissinger and the Republicans did when the Democratic Congress cut off funding for the Vietnam War. But the Democrats will continue pushing to withdraw, thus highlighting an alternative to their Republican colleagues, who will be again tied to the cement overshoes of the war.
What is good for the Democratic Party, however, is not good for the United States, its soldiers in Iraq, or the Iraqi people. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress need to cut off funding for the war now, forcing a rapid pull out. The United States cannot win this war with existing forces or by adding tens of thousands of forces on a sustained basis (which the already stretched military does not have anyway), so we must stop allowing existing forces to die in vain. Although the odds are long that the president will agree, a senior Republican who the president trusts needs to bluntly tell him that he needs to rapidly pull the plug on the failed Iraq operation. That senior person is Condi Rice.
Also, in an effort to set the stage for selling their withdrawal policy to the American people, both Democrats and Republicans are now blaming the Iraqis for not being able to govern themselves peacefully. Although this is tactically expedient, it is dangerous to blame the Iraqis for their current predicament. The United States committed unprovoked aggression against an artificial and fractious country of ethnic, religious, and tribal divisions that could only be held together by a strongman. The U.S. invasion removed that dictator and destroyed what remained of the social fabric of the country. But the (bi)party line for the history books will be that the United States invaded the country with the noble purpose of bringing democracy, and that the Iraqis should be faulted for destroying the democratic experiment.
Both the president and the Democrats and Republicans need to be honest that conducting an unprovoked invasion of Iraq was a horrendous mistake, which had little chance of ever implanting self-sustaining democracy there. They need to cut their losses and get out now. If they do, perhaps such future debacles can be avoided. But dont bet that any of the players will be so honest.