The Coming Consensus on Iraq

Terry Jeffrey
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Posted: May 31, 2007 12:01 AM
The Coming Consensus on Iraq

"By September, when Gen. Petraeus is to make his report, I think most people in Congress believe, unless something extraordinary occurs, that we should be on a move to draw that surge number down," the senator said on CBS's "Face the Nation."

"I don't think we need to be an occupying power," he explained.

So what new strategy did this senator envision? Well, it sounded something like the strategy the Iraq Study Group suggested in December, or that about-to-be-fired Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld suggested last November -- a strategy in which the United States would disengage from Iraqi cities while maintaining some forces in the country to train Iraqi troops, deter intervention by neighbors and act as a quick reaction force to target al-Qaida cells.

"This government in Iraq has got to step up, and we've got to be able to draw our troop levels down, to be in a more supportive role, an embedding role, a training role, and they've got to defend their own country," the senator said.

This was not some "centrist" Democrat or squishy Republican. It was Jeff Sessions of Alabama, one of the Senate's most reliable conservatives -- and he was echoing the views of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, also a conservative. "I think the handwriting is on the wall that we are going in a different direction in the fall, and I expect the president himself to lead it," McConnell's said last week. "We've given the Iraqi government an opportunity to have a normal country, and so far, they've been a great disappointment."

The stage is being set for Republicans and Democrats to at long last come together behind a new bipartisan policy for Iraq. President Bush himself is already halfway there.

From its inception, the objective of the "surge" was not military, but political. It was to buy time for Iraq's Shiite-Islamist-dominated government to enact reforms aimed at reconciling with Iraq's Sunni minority and, by that means, to politically stabilize the country.

"Gen. David Petraeus laid out a plan for Congress," President Bush explained at a press conference last week. "He talked about a strategy ... all aimed at helping this Iraqi government secure its capital so that they can do ... the political work necessary, the hard work necessary, to reconcile."

There are two good things about this strategy, one horrible thing and one thing now seemingly inevitable.

The first good thing is that leaders of both parties agreed that the political objective of the surge -- Iraqi reforms aimed at reconciliation -- was the correct one. Where they differed was over the means the United States should use to inspire the Iraqi government to pursue reconciliation. Assuming good will among Iraq's Shiite leaders, President Bush concluded they needed greater security. Not assuming good will among Iraq's Shiite leaders, Democrats concluded they needed the threat of a U.S. withdrawal.

The second good thing about the surge is it will be easy to tell if it is working: The Iraqi government either will enact the basic reforms aimed at reconciliation or it won't.

The horrible thing is that an escalating number of U.S. servicemen and women are giving their lives to carry out the surge.

The seemingly inevitable thing is that whether the surge works or not, U.S. forces will begin drawing down in Iraq after this September, hopefully along the lines envisioned by Rumsfeld, the Iraq Study Group, Sessions -- and, yes, by President Bush and Democratic leaders in Congress.

Bush indicated in his press conference last week that if the surge succeeds he would like to "configure" our presence in Iraq along the lines suggested by the Iraq Study Group, which was co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former House International Relations Chairman Lee Hamilton.

"As I have constantly made clear," said Bush, "the recommendations of Baker-Hamilton appeal to me, and that is to be embedded and to train and to guard the territorial integrity of the country, and to have Special Forces to chase down al-Qaida."

But what if the surge fails? If, by September, the Iraqi parliament has not enacted even the most basic "benchmarks" of reconciliation -- a de-Baathification reform law and an oil-distribution-and-development law -- can President Bush plausibly ask another 1,200 U.S. servicemen and women to sacrifice their lives so Iraq's Shiite-Islamist-dominated government can dither for another 12 months?

No.

Contrary to a popular misconception promoted by Democratic leaders themselves, the initial supplemental war-funding bill that the Democratic Congress passed and President Bush vetoed did not call for a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. It called for retaining troops there to train Iraqi forces and target al-Qaida -- much like what Donald Rumsfeld and the Iraq Study Group suggested last year and Sessions suggested Sunday.

This was no doubt because just as Democratic leaders shared Bush's view that Sunni-Shiite reconciliation was the correct U.S. political objective in Iraq, they also shared his view that a complete U.S. withdrawal could lead to all-out civil war, a broader regional war, increased influence for Iran in the Persian Gulf and a safe haven for al-Qaida in Anbar Province.

If the surge is working in September, Bush can begin acting on his stated desire to "configure" our forces according to Baker-Hamilton, and reasonable Democrats will have no choice but to support it. But if the surge isn't working, President Bush may have no choice but to "configure" our forces according to Baker-Hamilton -- because reasonable Republicans demand it.