SEN. RICHARD LUGAR's comments on Iraq came like a clap of thunder in the sultry summer skies of Washington. The ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee declared in a widely covered speech last week that he doesn't think "the current 'surge' strategy will succeed" and that we should therefore "downsize the U.S. military's role in Iraq." Other Republicans also have expressed frustration and impatience with the war effort, warning that they may start to defect unless there are substantial signs of progress by September, which is unlikely.What are the consequences here:
It is not hard to see what lies behind this growing unease. The probability of impending defeat — in elections, not wars — concentrates the minds of politicians like nothing else, and there is fear verging on panic within GOP ranks that if the situation in Iraq remains unchanged in 2008, the party may suffer the mother of all drubbings. Dick Morris, that reliable weather vane, captured the mood: "It is Iraq that is dragging the president's ratings down and killing his party's chances in the election…. If he began to pull out troops, he could begin to recover his personal ratings and move his party up."
To justify what is essentially a poll-driven cave-in, Republicans are telling themselves that abandoning the surge is not only good politics, it's good policy. The argument goes like this: Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and the Iraqi politicians aren't delivering results fast enough for a fed-up American electorate, making a complete, precipitous withdrawal increasingly likely following a Democrat victory in 2008, if not sooner. So instead of waiting for the worst, the administration should preemptively start cutting forces to a more politically sustainable level for the long haul.
A major pullout of U.S. forces would empower militias and terrorists. Our allies would feel abandoned. Our remaining troops would feel demoralized. (Recall the collapse of morale among U.S. soldiers in Vietnam after withdrawal began in 1969.) The Iraqi Security Forces might well collapse.Political calculations cannot be used to determine our war planning in Iraq. As Boot notes, it would be a grave blunder to begin a drawdown now. The new Iraq strategy can work: General Petraeus has begun to turn things around in Iraq, and we need to be firm in our support for the mission!
It is hard to see how that would advance the "four primary objectives" of American policy cited by Lugar — to stop Iraq from becoming a terrorist stronghold, preserve regional stability, limit Iranian influence and preserve our credibility. The resulting chaos would only make it harder to sustain public support for any troop presence, whether 60,000 or 160,000.
It also would do Republicans little good politically. Voters are disgusted with the GOP for launching the war in Iraq because it has not gone well. They are not likely to become less vengeful if we leave in defeat and gloating Al Qaeda kingpins fill the airwaves. Only an improvement in the on-the-ground situation is likely to reverse Republican political fortunes.
That means continuing to back Petraeus and his surge strategy. It is wildly premature to say, as many do, that the surge has already failed. In truth, it has barely begun. The last of the additional U.S. troops just moved into their "battle space." It was only on June 15 that the U.S. command launched Operation Phantom Thunder — using all of its forces to simultaneously target multiple insurgent strongholds in Baghdad and its "belts." The results won't be clear for months — probably not until early next year....
At that point, the U.S. could begin responsibly drawing down its troops toward a long-term level of 60,000 to 80,000. To do so now, when the security situation remains so unsettled, risks catastrophe. Petraeus faces a tough fight, but he remains confident that he can succeed. He would not be risking the lives of his soldiers otherwise.
If weak-kneed politicians in Washington deny him a fair chance to implement the surge, it would be, to quote Talleyrand, worse than a crime; it would be a blunder.