A Qualified "Yes" For The Surge
One of the good things about writing a blog is that you have to read and think a lot, and get the chance to hear from people all the time about how wrong I am and how I have disappointed them. I’m about to step onto that island once again.
I’ve spent a large part of today reading and re-reading an account of Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ testimony yesterday to the Senate Armed Services Committee, wherein he made it pretty clear that the escalation of 21,500 troops will be in stages, totally dependent upon the al-Maliki government meeting benchmarks. Gates went so far to tell Carl Levin and John Warner that if the Iraqis hold up their end of the deal, and if things go as well as the Americans hope, a withdrawal can begin as early as the end of this year. Gates also made it clear that America does not want permanent bases in Iraq.
Yes, there is no reason to think that the Iraqis will hold up their end, as I believe that al-Maliki is more committed to centralizing Shiite power than he is leading a new multisectarian Iraq. Yet, in order for the Iraqis to take the initiative and take charge of their own future, more troops were needed in the short term to deal with Al Qaeda in the al-Anbar province and to work with the Iraqis to deal with the insurgents and militias in Baghdad. Even the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group said it could support a short term surge of 10,000-20,000 troops to stabilize Baghdad if militarily beneficial, but as part of an exit strategy (p. 50). The problem we face of course is that, like the prewar intelligence, Bush cherry-picked the parts of the ISG report he wanted (the surge) and tossed out everything else because he doesn’t like being told what to do. Lastly, because of his immaturity and insecurity, Bush is predisposed against talking with bad actors or those he thinks are bad actors. Hence there will be no regional talks involving Iran or Syria while Bush is in office, as that to Bush would be a reward for bad behavior.
After reading Gates’ testimony, and seeing evidence that Bush is trying to undo the damage done by Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Bremer, and after putting aside my intense dislike and loathing for Bush, I reached a surprising conclusion late this afternoon.
Assuming that Gates did not lie to the Senate yesterday, I can support Bush’s plan with qualifications. I think it is too late for Bush's plan to work, for the reasons I gave about al-Maliki, and because Bush should have taken these steps a year ago. Politically, I am glad to see that after this blog said late this week that the Democrats should answer Bush’s challenge by adopting the ISG report as their policy, tomorrow’s Post reports that Democrats are doing exactly that. But in the interim, with Gates tying the gradual surge to concrete steps by the Iraqis, I can support what Bush is proposing here, albeit months too late. Yes, the alternative is to withdraw, cut off funds for the escalation, or demand that the ISG report be implemented immediately. But the ISG report doesn’t propose going after Al Qaeda immediately nor does it tie a surge to immediate Iraqi commitments to their own security. At the other end of the spectrum, Bush could also have escalated without any benchmarks or even kept the status quo without any tie to Iraqi performance. He didn’t; instead he is inserting more troops to go after Al Qaeda, and to buy the Iraqis one last time window to take over for themselves.
Crunch time will come in the months ahead to see if the Iraqis do their part, and if they don’t, to see if Bush will uphold what Gates told the Senate yesterday and then perhaps implement the ISG report. The Post piece for tomorrow indicates that the administration isn’t looking at the surge as an open-ended commitment as many of us fear; if there isn’t a improvement in Baghdad’s security by August, presumably another change in policy would be forthcoming, and with the 2008 presidential race heating up by then, you can bet that the GOP will be pressuring the White House to get Iraq off the table as much as possible.
Bush is isolated right now, and he is responsible for the catastrophe in Iraq. But assuming that Gates laid out the administration’s plan truthfully yesterday, and that the surge is time-limited and dependent upon Iraqi performance, I will go along with it notwithstanding my everlasting contempt for Bush because it targets Al Qaeda in Iraq and pushes the Iraqis one last time to deal with their own problems. As for the Democrats, they should push the ISG report as their own, and fight Bush’s plan while they reap the benefits of watching the GOP implode from Bush’s choice. The truth is that the GOP has fractured in the House, despite claims by John Boehner and Roy Blunt that they would derail Pelosi and Hoyer. In fact the Democrats have splintered the House GOP and pulled many GOP votes over to the Democrats’ side so far. As the House debates Iraq in the coming weeks through hearings, both Democrats and Republicans will see first hand whether or not al-Maliki holds up his end of the deal. If, as I expect, the Iraqis let us down once again, Pelosi and Hoyer may find more GOP allies than they had thought possible for stronger measures, and as such the Democrats are in a much stronger position on Iraq than they know. Pelosi and Reid can build a bipartisan majority to attach the ISG external recommendations to the supplemental appropriations bill without challenging Bush's authority as commander in chief over the military, and force Bush to issue a signing statement in defiance of a bipartisan congressional majority.
The burden will solely be upon Bush to deliver what he as the commander in chief says can work. If it doesn’t work by the summer, he is done and Congress can take control of foreign policy for the remainder of his term.