Will George W. Bush try to steal a page from Richard Nixon and, reading the handwriting on the wall after a dismal showing in the congressional elections, begin to pull troops out of Iraq by the end of the year? If he does, will it save the Republican Party?
Recent indications of administration unhappiness with the failure of the Iraqi regime to use the period of the surge in American troops to enact basic reforms might presage just such a withdrawal. Clearly, the Iraqi government has done nothing to expand power-sharing with the Sunnis or to equalize access to oil revenues. Their failure to act could give Bush the rationale he needs to begin to draw down American force levels.
If Bush decides to act in this way, he will be doing himself, his party, and the country a big favor. There is still time to rescue the fortunes of the Republican Party in the 2008 election. It is Iraq that is dragging the president’s ratings down and killing his party’s chances in the election. Bush’s ratings on the economy are not bad, and he still draws commendations for his battle against terrorism. If he began to pull out troops, he could begin to recover his personal ratings and move his party up.
Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have both indicated that they would have to support some kind of ongoing presence in Iraq during their presidencies. Obama implied as much when he told David Letterman that “we need to be as responsible in pulling out as we were irresponsible in going in” to Iraq.
But Hillary has been much more direct, telling The New York Times that she favored keeping sufficient troops there to provide logistical, training, air and intelligence support for Iraqi forces and to hunt al Qaeda and patrol the Iraq-Iran border to stop infiltration. These missions, according to Pentagon sources, would likely occupy at least 75,000 soldiers.
If Bush begins to draw down manpower levels by the end of the year, he could reduce the differences between his positionand that of the Democratic front-runners on a matter of numbers rather than on basic policy. In taking the Iraq issue out of contention in the 2008 election, Bush will have rescued his party from what is now almost certain defeat.
Will his move seem transparently political? Democrats will surely say that it is, but nobody will really believe that Bush or the Republicans will reverse course and send in more troops after the election. Everybody will believe that the draw-down of U.S. troops is permanent and quite real.