WASHINGTON -- President Bush began a new political counteroffensive this week in response to the erosion of Republican support for the war in Iraq. His message: "I want to bring the troops home as much as you do."
Indeed, in a series of speeches this week, Bush has begun saying this is his intention and the primary rationale behind this year's troop surge -- to improve the security situation on the ground such that it will permit U.S. force withdrawals by early next year.
This was also the message the White House was privately delivering last week to a number of Republicans who have voiced their frustration about the continuing violence and mounting casualties as a result of the surge. "We want what you want," White House national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley has been telling rebellious lawmakers in one-on-one "hand-holding" meetings.
The political offensive was being deployed this week, after intensive debate within the White House, just as the Democrats were jump-starting their own offensive to insert new language into a defense-funding bill to end the war. Bush won the initial skirmish earlier this year against a troop-pullout bill, but the latest erosion of support for the war among his troops on Capitol Hill and the continued truck-bombing carnage in Iraq has made the next round of legislative warfare even more problematical.
Still, Bush has several things going for him that have gotten lost in the growing clamor over the war that could help the administration buy some time until Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. military commander in Iraq, delivers his report on the conduct of the war in September.
Much has been made of the speeches by Republican senators Richard Lugar of Indiana, Pete Domenici of New Mexico and George Voinovich of Ohio, who vented their frustrations with the war and a growing unease that the latest surge may not work. Then what? they ask. What is Bush's Plan B?
Overlooked in their impassioned speeches is that they are not calling for a pullout, a move that would lead to a bloodbath in Iraq and, perhaps, a wider conflict in the region. Nor are they calling for setting a firm deadline when the administration would begin bringing troops home, turning over the brunt of the war to the Iraqi army. The Iraqi military, while shouldering an increasing role, isn't there yet, in training or leadership.
What these and other Republicans want is a clearer statement from the president that he does not envision an unending war led by U.S. troops and that he intends to begin downsizing our combat role there in 2008 at the latest, as the Iraqi military takes over.
That is what Bush's speeches need to convey. That is what the surge is intended to accomplish if we give it time to work.
And there is much evidence, among the bombings and other acts of violence, that incremental progress is being made. One of the major changes going on there is the formation of alliances between Sunni leaders, tired of the death and destruction, and U.S. military leaders on the ground.
When Sunni leader Abu Ali asked U.S. commanders for their help in taking on insurgents in Diyala province, things changed for the better. "Using his Iraqi partners to pick out the insurgents and uncover the bombs they had seeded along the cratered roads ... (U.S. soldiers) soon apprehended more than 100 militants, including several low-level emirs," the New York Times reported last week.
Similar U.S. military alliances with sheikhs in Anbar province "have made an enormous difference in what was the most dangerous province in Iraq," New York Times reporter John Burns said Monday on PBS' "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer." Or listen to Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of coalition forces south of Baghdad: "We just got the surge brigades in the fight on the 15th of June. That was only three weeks ago. And we're already having great effect in my areas. We have killed 50 of the enemy. We have captured over 250 more. We have taken away 50 weapons caches. And we are having an effect," Lynch said Sunday on CNN. It is important to understand that the surge under Petraeus' command has only just begun in full force. But in that time, sectarian killings are down substantially, terrorist arms caches are being discovered at three times the rate of last year and Iraqi military recruitment has risen significantly. A midterm assessment of the war, mandated by the war-funding bill that Bush signed in May, will be out this weekend, highlighting the progress as well as the remaining challenges, but counseling that time is needed for the surge to achieve its mission.
America's best and bravest have given their lives for the hard-fought gains we've won there. Now, Bush's plea comes down to this: Let's give the surge a chance to work so we can start bringing our troops home by next year.