The president continues to say it is a vital national interest to engage Al-Queda in the chosen land of Iraq. We'll leave if Iraq asks us to, consequences notwithstanding. That's called respecting a sovereign state. We won't leave if Congress asks us to, consequences notwithstanding. That's called surrender.
The administration is pinning its current hopes on the success of what it calls a "surge." This allegedly temporary increase in troop strength and activity is supposed to stabilize Baghdad enough to give the political processes a chance to work.
The argument against a timetable is that it gives the enemy a date certain around which to plan. And the enemy wins either way: by increasing their activity now, they give ammunition to those who would call the "surge" a failure, and by retreating to fight again when the "surge" is over they create the chaos what remains of US Iraqi military strategy is meant to quell. The taunts of al-Quada can be turned on and off at will even if Shiite/Sunni fighting can't.
But the administration also speaks obliquely of the consequences of Iraq's failure to meet benchmarks by saying the patience of the US public isn't infinite. And it is reported that the White House is evaluating "concepts" for reducing troop strength by 50% next year.
So we will pick an arbitrary day to leave if we're asked to. Or if Iraq doesn't step up. Or next year.
Showing Love to Baker/Hamilton
The message of not supporting the troops would have sounded the loudest with every death in the battlefield and with a remarkably sympathetic Robert Gates scrambling to cover his position by not paying the Pentagon lighting bill.
Perhaps the biggest double-take inducing concept: the Bush White House gave lip service to the Iraq Study Group's report when it was first published and now the president jokes that he doesn't have so much a "Plan B" as a "plan BH (Baker/Hamilton).
The president doesn't say much anymore that this is a different kind of war, but it is. There is no way to estimate enemy troop strength, no way to define the enemy in a way that is commonly agreed, no way to stop reinforcement by so-called foreign fighters (foreign to what, exactly?), no way to prevent covert intervention by other nation states (though the Middle Eastern equivalent of bombing Laos and Cambodia may come true), no way to keep score by killing and capturing asymmetric enemy forces, no way to keep score by capturing and holding territory.
Fighting With a Systemic Handicap
There isn't even a way to engage the enemy without creating lots of collateral damage among the innocents who outnumber and out-concentrate both fighting forces combined. I was in the first class of "Media Boot Camp," the pre-war Pentagon initiative to prep potential embeds. One of the things we were shown was an urban warfare fighting scenario in which marines were trained to take on snipers in a city setting. We observed this exercise for only an hour or so -- it was done with paintballs -- but the trainees never "won," the snipers always did. Now, if they could have just blown up the buildings ...
It seems like the outcome in Iraq will be inevitably bad without an enormous policing force. It seems that peace -- or at least stability -- will come only when one side suppresses the other. Given that losing the peace is worse than losing the war is it any wonder that so much posturing is going on now among US politicians trying to avoid the blame that will come from a fickle American electorate when the music stops?
Given this backdrop I find it difficult to brand the Democratic-led Congress cowardly for not playing chicken longer on the issue of a timeline. Though skewered by the "out of Iraq now" wing of the party and the Bill Mahers and John Stewarts of the world it seemed there was no way to force Bush's hand, he with nothing to lose by continuing to imperil those he has put in harm's way.
Yes, the Democrats were voted in to bring this to an end. But if you calculate only that way, they were not voted in with numbers of sufficient force to meet the immovable object that is President Bush. What is the takeaway from getting just enough votes to run committees but not nearly enough to override vetos?
What Have You Done For Me Lately?
On the "hell or high water" course many urge on the Democrats it seems clear to me that the message of not supporting the troops would have been the one that sounded the loudest with every death in the battlefield and with a remarkably sympathetic Robert Gates scrambling to cover his position by not paying the Pentagon lighting bill. I can just hear the refrain of "We voted to bring the war to an end -- but not this way" touted on weekly polls.
Sometimes progress require a one step forward, two steps back approach. The cause hasn't been abandoned. There will be other votes and more time to enlist needed Republicans as the grim news gets grimmer and the election approaches.
Perhaps one thing the Democrats know that the Bushies never will: victory sometimes requires a strategic retreat.
[Note: Photographs of US Marine urban combat training were taken in November 2002 at The Basic School by the author]