Taking Advantage Of The Schism
There has been a lot of chatter amongst the center-left bloggers over the last 12 hours regarding GOP Senator Dick Lugar’s floor speech yesterday on Iraq, wherein he seemingly called for a mission change in Iraq. Many bloggers, and rightly so, will not believe any GOP senator will break with Bush and call for a drawdown of troops until they actually see it happen, having seen this rhetoric and cave-in too many times before.
But I think it is important to remember that the course change in Iraq will not come from a sudden 180-degree call from GOP senators for a withdrawal. Instead, progress will come when influential GOP senators are allowed a face-saving retreat through a change in mission such as the one Lugar is proposing that falls far short of an immediate withdrawal, but one which still gives those GOP senators a chance to regain the look of independent statesmen who haven’t had their balls locked up by Dick Cheney these last six years. Lugar is calling for just such a change in mission, albeit one that still envisions thousands of US forces inside Iraq years from now to fight terrorism and protect the oil.
I am a minority among the center-left bloggers when I say that despite what I think of this war, and my desire for an immediate pullout, I support a residual force for several years to provide a Special Forces capability to reduce or eliminate the Al Qaeda threat inside Iraq. We owe the Iraqis many things for breaking their country, but one of the things we can do is to clean up Bush’s mess and try and reverse his dereliction of duty when he allowed Al Qaeda a new safe haven in Iraq. Our forces have no business trying to police a civil war if the Iraqis are intent on killing each other, but the one thing Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sunni tribesmen and Shiite militiamen all have in common is a rejection of allowing Al Qaeda to set up shop in Iraq. We should be drawing down our forces between now and the end of 2008 to refocus our mission away from policing a civil war towards a counterterrorism mission in concert with new regional security agreements. And yes, that means talking with all of Iraq’s neighbors to put in place joint multi-country efforts to go after and eliminate Al Qaeda. This means that there will be a residual force of 25,000 or so logistical and Special Forces based inside Kurdish Iraq for part of the next Democratic administration, but in no way should there be a permanent American presence inside another Middle Eastern country.
Lugar’s statement last night signals that he, perhaps John Warner, and several other GOP bigfoots are now aiming for a face-saving course change this fall that helps them regain their manhood ahead of a GOP bludgeoning next year without being seen as forced to accept Democratic withdrawal timelines. Democrats won’t get the immediate withdrawal that many of them seek because we simply don’t have the votes for that yet. But we do have the votes to tie a major mission change and drawdown to a counter-terrorism level of forces by the end of 2008 to the 2008 Defense budget if the Democratic leadership can take advantage of what Lugar and others will be seeking over the coming weeks.
Given their current numbers in the Senate, the best the Democrats can accomplish between now and 2009 is to allow the GOP a face-saving retreat into a debate about what type of withdrawal we should be forcing upon the White House, by tying it to the 2008 budget. As E. J. Dionne notes today in the Post, Democrats have the field laid out for them now between two approaches and force structures. The first is being put forward by the new and centrist Center for a New American Security, and the second was put out yesterday by the center-left Center for American Progress.
In one of its inaugural reports, CNAS suggests reducing the American presence in Iraq by 100,000 troops between now and the beginning of 2009. But it would keep 60,000 troops in Iraq for four years beyond that, not only to train the army but also to work with "tribal, local and provincial leaders" who are fighting al-Qaeda.
It is not clear to me that a lengthy commitment of that sort is either possible or desirable. But the report, written by James Miller and Shawn Brimley, has the virtue of defining three sensible goals for American policy: to prevent the establishment of al-Qaeda havens in Iraq; to prevent a regional war; and to prevent genocide. Miller defines the right objective for those who want to end the war: "There should be a much better plan for withdrawal than there was for entry." Indeed.
That's why it's also useful that yesterday, the Center for American Progress, a center-left think tank, released its own plan for a much more rapid withdrawal. The center's plan would have all American troops out of Iraq before the end of 2008, except for a force of 8,000 to 10,000 in the Kurdish area for an additional year. The United States owes a serious commitment to the Kurds, both for historical reasons and for the help they have given America in this conflict.
The parameters of the debate should be between these two approaches during the budget bill deliberations. Rather than getting sucked into the all or nothing choice of withdrawal or no withdrawal, which pushes the GOP senators away from voting for a drawdown, the Senate Democratic leadership should steer the debate between these two approaches, and debate how much of a commitment we should make against Al Qaeda in Iraq. Such a debate not only gives the GOP senators an opportunity to retreat and commit to a drawdown, but also gives the Democrats an opportunity to demonstrate their anti-terrorism bona fides and do the right thing by forcing Bush to clean up his own mistake while he is in office, rather than push the problem off onto his successor.