September 1, 2007  

Waiting for David

Will the Iraq war commander’s report convince Congress?

‘m going to wait to see what David has to say," President Bush declared.

That was mid-July after the White House released an interim report showing poor progress the Iraqi government and the Iraqi military were making toward being able to take control of their country.

Bush was stalling, hoping to buy two more months, when Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, is scheduled to present a more detailed — and, Bush hopes, more positive — report on Iraq’s progress toward forming a functioning government.

Bush’s battle cry, "Wait for David," was quickly picked up by Republicans who want to stand by the president but, with an election year looming, are increasingly uncomfortable supporting a war that their constituents increasingly do not want.

The delaying tactic was enough to get lawmakers through July and on their way home for their August recess without sending the president any troublesome bills setting deadlines for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, tightening readiness standards for deploying troops or forcing any change of course in the Iraq war. Instead, Democrats who control Congress say they expect to bring those matters up when they return in September and resume work on a $140 billion war funding bill. In that case, the debate will coincide nicely with the Sept. 15 delivery of the Petraeus report.

And what will Petraeus say? The general himself dropped a hint during a newspaper interview in July.

"I can think of few commanders in history who wouldn’t have wanted more troops, more time or more unity among their partners. However, if I could only have one [of those] at this point in Iraq, it would be more time," Petraeus told the New York Post. More recently, Petraeus offered a possible preview of his September report to members of Congress who met with him at the Pentagon. Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., was among them. "We will hear that the sun is beginning to rise, that there has been some improvement in Iraq," Sestak predicted. But if the preview at the Pentagon was any indicator, Petraeus’ presentation will be heavy on anecdotes and light on real evidence, Sestak said.

During the Pentagon presentation, "I heard about how many ammunition dumps had been captured, how many al-Qaida operatives had been killed or captured, how many networks had been discovered and broken up. But I heard nothing" about how many ammunition dumps there are or how fast is al-Qaida recruiting replacements for its members who are killed or captured. Sestak said it reminded him of the time as a new Navy ensign when he heard optimistic reports of body counts offered as proof that U.S. forces were winning the war in Vietnam. Elected to Congress last fall as a war opponent, Sestak completed a three-decade career in the Navy, where he rose to the rank of admiral and commanded a carrier battle group during the opening months of the war in Afghanistan. In a speech Aug. 6, he called for setting "a date certain" for U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq.

Don’t expect anything so definitive in the Petraeus report, although there is likely to be some mention of an eventual "orderly transition" of responsibilities from U.S. forces to Iraqis. A longtime Democratic House aide said he expects Petraeus’ report to be sufficiently ambiguous that lawmakers on both sides of the debate — those who favor pulling out of Iraq and those who favor staying — "will run out of the room saying, ‘See, this is just what we said.’"

"He will talk about progress being made on the military side and that Anbar province is more peaceful." But Petraeus will have a hard time avoiding the fact that political progress in Iraq is at a standstill, the aide said.

Lawmakers eager to begin pulling troops out of Iraq were hoping the August recess would give Iraq-weary voters opportunities to increase the anti-war pressure on stay-the-course congressmen. "Democrats are counting on constituents to blister the Republicans for not getting us out of Iraq," the aide said. "If you believe the polls, seven out of 10 people think we’re on the wrong track with this war.

"The very clear message in the ’06 election was: We want out," he said.

balance of power

Indeed, voters shifted control of both the House and Senate from Republicans to Democrats, but they did not give Democrats an adequate margin to make a difference. Although they control the House, Democrats do not have enough votes to override presidential vetoes. And their grip on the Senate is even more tenuous. There are 49 Democrats, 49 Republicans and two independents, only one of whom, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., can be counted on to vote with the Democrats on war issues. That’s not enough to round up the 60 votes needed to pass legislation in the Senate. As a result, Republicans still control the war by virtue of blocking change.

"All Bush has to do is keep 32 Republicans and Lieberman in line," said Lawrence Korb, a defense analyst at the Center for American Progress. Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a former Democrat, was rejected by his party in favor of an anti-war candidate. He ran as an Independent, returned to office and reliably supports Bush on Iraq matters.

But keeping Senate Republicans in line may depend on what Sen. John Warner, R-Va., does. A former Armed Services Committee chairman, Warner is the elder statesman among Republicans on defense matters, and a trip to Iraq last November left him increasingly skeptical of the war. His assessment then was, "Iraq was, in my judgment, just aimlessly sliding sideways." His assessment in late July was, "Right now it’s a major failure — the military going forward, the central government going backward."

If Warner isn’t convinced by Petraeus that the Iraq war can be turned around, some political analysts say Warner’s opposition to current war policy could persuade a dozen or more Senate Republicans to vote for a change. And Warner has proposed one — sort of. Along with Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., Warner introduced legislation this summer that would require Bush to draw up plans for changing operations in Iraq, including plans for a drawdown or redeployment of forces. However, the Warner-Lugar language does not specify how operations should change, and it does not require that once outlined, changes must be implemented. Warner-Lugar does not set troop withdrawal dates or Iraqi benchmarks, it merely demands planning. It is time to plan "for the next phase of our involvement in Iraq, whether that is withdrawal, redeployment, or some other option," Lugar said in a speech to the Senate.

The new plan would be due to Congress by Oct. 16. But so far, the legislation has not passed. Meanwhile, there are signs that some in the Bush administration are adopting a more flexible position on Iraq. During his July 31 confirmation hearing to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen told the Senate Armed Services Committee: "I believe prudence dictates that we plan for an eventual drawdown and the transition of responsibilities to Iraqi security forces.

"I understand the frustration over the war. I share it," Mullen said, but he argued against a prompt pullout. "I am convinced that because security in Iraq is tied to security in the region, and because security in the region bears directly on our own national security, we must consider our next moves very carefully." He predicted U.S. forces would remain in Iraq for "years, not months."

A quick withdrawal is pretty much out of the question anyway, Sestak said. It would take 15 to 24 months to get 160,000 U.S. troops, nearly as many contractors and 40 combat brigade equivalents of equipment safely out of Iraq, he said. Exiting Iraq would involve hauling convoys of equipment-laden trucks "through a nonpermissive environment" of ambushes and roadside bombs. It would take about 100 days to empty out and shut down each of the 68 U.S. forward operating bases. If they can be closed four at a time, leaving Iraq would take more than four years, Sestak said.

Mindful of the political problem the prospect of endless operations in Iraq will create for Republicans hoping for re-election next year, it won’t be too surprising if the Bush administration announces a small troop drawdown in conjunction with the Petraeus report, said Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa. He’s betting on an announcement that 30,000 of the 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq will come home this fall. That would create the impression of progress, while simply returning U.S. troop strength in Iraq to pre-surge levels ? something the Defense Department will have to do in spring to avoid extending tours.

A former Marine and chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense, Murtha was among the early Democrats to publicly turn against the war in Iraq. He said he does not believe the situation in Iraq is improving.

But the announcement of even a small troop drawdown could make it substantially harder for Democrats to press their demand for a withdrawal date or a change in Iraq strategy. Anti-war Democrats must counter with a much more comprehensive plan, Sestak said. That means coming up with a plan for "the aftermath" of the war and the future of the Middle East.

"Ending this war is necessary but insufficient. How we end it is more important. It has to do with the safety of our troops and the security of that region," Sestak said.

"Americans are tired of this war, but at the same time they want to salvage the best of the situation. I believe that means a bipartisan approach, hard as that may be. That may mean compromising," he said.

Perhaps David can persuade them to do that.