This time there were no peace marches. There was no MoveOn.org ad in the New
York Times calling the commander of coalition forces in Iraq
"General Betray Us." There was no suggestion from Senator Hillary
Clinton that crediting the commander's report on military progress in Iraq required
the "willing suspension of disbelief." There were no votes on cutting
off funds for the war. No expectation of passing a timetable for withdrawal.
All of which happened last time, when General David Petraeus and Ambassador
Ryan Crocker first reported to Congress in September 2007 on the Bush
administration's "surge" policy. But not this time. When Petraeus and
Crocker returned to Washington
last week, Congress was stymied. Subdued. Cowed. And the congressmen's
"frustration," reported the Washington Post, "appeared to
stem from a realization that there was little they could do to affect policy in
the administration's final nine months."
The Post was right. Listening to congressmen meander through various
lines of questioning over the two days of hearings, one detected a certain
resignation to the idea that U.S.
forces will remain in Iraq
in substantial numbers at least through January 2009 and possibly well into the
Why the shift from an emboldened antiwar movement in 2007 to a despondent
one in 2008? Democrats in Congress would say the reason is structural. They
don't have the votes to overcome GOP filibusters or override presidential
vetoes of antiwar legislation. But they do not say why this is the case. The
reason they do not have the votes is the success of the surge. If the surge had
not forced Al Qaeda in Iraq
into retreat, stanched the ethnosectarian conflict in Baghdad and surrounding provinces, and
created the tenuous sense of security that has accompanied and encouraged
ground-up reconciliation and national political progress, GOP support for the
war would have collapsed. The Democrats would have had the votes to force a
withdrawal. And Bush would have been unable to stop the rush to the exits.
That didn't happen. The surge's success so far has defanged the antiwar
movement--for the moment.
Petraeus and Crocker have until January 20, 2009, to build on the recent
gains. Their plan, endorsed by President Bush, is to withdraw the surge troops
by July, then to consolidate and take stock, with any further drawdown of the
remaining force of about 140,000 dependent on conditions on the ground. If John
McCain is elected president, Petraeus and Crocker will probably have the
backing of the new administration. But no matter who is elected in November, a
large-scale American military and economic commitment to Iraq may
outlast the Bush presidency. As former Bush adviser Peter Feaver noted in Commentary, Iraq may not look the same to a
Democratic president in the Oval Office as it did to a candidate on "the
stage of a college gymnasium filled with delirious Democratic primary
In this scenario, a President Obama or a President Clinton assumes office,
listens to the Joint Chiefs and the director of national intelligence,
and--presto!--realizes that despite what was said on the trail, there is no
easy way out of Iraq.
For strategic and security reasons the American presence must continue for some
time. Then the new president recalibrates plans for withdrawal, perhaps
abandoning them altogether, and in a televised address from the Oval Office,
coolly explains to the country that the difficult realities of a dangerous
world require the commander in chief to renege on campaign promises of an
orderly and timely "redeployment" from Iraq.
Fat chance. Some wishful thinkers may not believe the
Democratic presidential candidates are serious. They may think that these savvy
pols are playing to an antiwar primary electorate and will become more
"responsible" if one of them becomes president. They misunderstand
For most Democrats, leaving Iraq
as soon as possible is the responsible course of action. Hence Hillary
Clinton's statement during the Petraeus hearings last week: "I think it
could be fair to say that it might well be irresponsible to continue the policy
that has not produced the results that have been promised time and time
again." Would a President Clinton suddenly decide otherwise? Would she
argue that U.S. security
requires a large American force to remain in Iraq indefinitely? Do pigs fly?
Yes, both Obama and Clinton have been vague about how they plan to
"end" the war. And Obama advisers have been in the news backtracking
from promises to end the war swiftly (Samantha Power) or writing memos
envisioning tens of thousands of Americans in Iraq through 2010 (Colin Kahl of
the Center for a New American Security).
But these are distractions. What matters is that both Obama and Clinton
promise to end the war regardless of conditions on the ground. In a March 19
speech in North Carolina, Obama said that as
president he will "immediately begin" to "remove our troops from
at the rate of one to two combat brigades "each month." He then
promises to "remove all of them in 16 months" while leaving
"enough troops" to "guard our embassy and diplomats and a
counterterrorism force to strike al Qaeda if it forms a base that the Iraqis
At George Washington
University in February, Clinton promised to begin
removing troops "within 60 days" of taking office, also at a rate of
one to two brigades a month. So far Clinton has
resisted making a promise to have all U.S. troops out by a date certain.
But that is simply to allow her room to maneuver; she understands that a date
certain is a promise to voters she may be unable to keep. Her main promise,
like Obama's, is to leave Iraq.
Which is a promise either one must keep. They must keep it because (a) each
believes it's the right thing to do and (b) any Democrat who is elected will
face unrelenting pressure to withdraw.
This pressure will take two forms. The first is institutional. The Pentagon
brass believe the Iraq war
has stretched U.S.
forces to the breaking point. They already think the Bush administration is
drawing down our troops too slowly. So they are unlikely to resist an Obama or
Clinton administration's plans to withdraw more rapidly.
Meanwhile, in 2009 Democrats will retain control of Congress, perhaps with
expanded majorities in both chambers. The Democratic caucus's antiwar bonafides
are well established. Senate leader Harry Reid declared the war
"lost" in April 2007, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi has long held that Iraq is a
"problem" to be "solved" by withdrawal. You can be sure
that the Democratic Congress will try to legislate timetables or reduce funds
for combat next year, especially if the new president is a Democrat. Would a
President Obama or Clinton veto a bill calling for withdrawal? Would either
lobby against legislation enacting political timelines for "strategic
redeployment" from Iraq?
The second form of pressure will be political. The election of a Democratic
president will be interpreted as a mandate to end the war. The pro-withdrawal
faction will have energy and momentum. Failure to follow through will risk a
collapse in public support. This happened to the Democratic Congress elected in
2006, which promised to end the war in Iraq and saw its approval ratings
sink when it failed to do so. A president requires public approval in order to
enact his policy agenda. Obama or Clinton will not want to repeat Congress's
So the drawdown will begin. One hopes--one prays--that by January 2009 Iraq will have reached a point where security
gains can be maintained with fewer U.S. troops. But that may not be
the case. It may be that security will deteriorate as Americans leave, that
militias will rearm, and Al Qaeda in Iraq will regroup as the central
government fumbles to quell a situation spiraling out of control. Violence may
spike. Ethnosectarian conflict may flare. The Sunnis may walk out of the
government. The chaos may spread. What then? Will a President Obama or Clinton
halt the withdrawals--or, more likely, accelerate them? After all, Obama and
Clinton have long argued that the United States
should not "referee" Iraq's
Petraeus and Crocker's achievements in Iraq notwithstanding, Obama and
Clinton have promised to leave. Either one, if elected, will most likely follow
through. And it won't be pretty.