The administration's latest policy changes toward the Iraq war signal a gradual repositioning in anticipation of a shift in strategy by 2008. Some of President Bush's zigs and zags in the past year, as he fought the Democrats' efforts to tie a troop-pullout deadline to the war-funding bill, have led him to accept some of the Iraq Study Group's proposals. In the beginning, the White House wasn't exactly crazy about the idea of imposing hard-and-fast progress benchmarks on the Iraqi government, something the Democrats insisted must be in the war supplemental. But as the battle intensified on Capitol Hill and in Iraq, the White House embraced the idea, after some language modifications.
These benchmarks, a key part of commission co-chairman James Baker's report, were one of the central reasons why Bush won in the end. They underscored U.S. demands that the Iraqis had to meet their obligations on troop recruitment, constitutional changes and political compromise to end the sectarian division that has badly weakened Prime Minister Maliki's government.
Another top commission proposal was to shift the U.S. military mission from one of frontline warfare to one of training and equipping and backing up a substantially larger Iraqi military. I suggested this in a column last year and predicted it would be the long-term role of the United States in a war that would last for a long time. Only Iraqis would be fighting and dying. The administration and U.S. military commanders have been sending increasing signals that the Iraq war is ultimately going to be won or lost by the Iraqis themselves. That means the role of American military forces will be to train them to fight a long war to preserve the freedom given when U.S. soldiers brought down Saddam Hussein's terrorist government.
Military-strategy papers talk of doubling Iraqi forces and providing them with the training, arms, armor and other equipment needed to overcome the terrorists. That is the direction toward which the United States is headed. Perhaps no proposal by the Iraq Study Group was more ridiculed by administration insiders than the idea of sitting down and talking with Iran. There was plenty of evidence Iran was aiding terrorist groups in Iraq, which the Iranians deny, but at the same time, Iran feared the war could spread throughout the Middle East and further destabilize the region -- something Iran does not want.