Gen. David Petraeus was recently quoted as saying that it may take “ten years” to eliminate the insurgency in Iraq. Too bad President Bush didn’t tell him that he has more like six months TOPS to help put the Iraqi government on some sort of foundation. When Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) speaks of winding down our commitment, people tend to listen. Despite what bloggers or some neocons say, most members, Republicans and Democrats, are moving toward an agreement to refocus, but not eliminate, the American commitment in that country in the next year or so.

To be sure, the parties will do this for different reasons. Democrats are under enormous pressure from their activist (i.e., left-wing) base to end American involvement. Republicans saw what happened in the 2006 elections and are determined not to enter another election where Iraq policy is the dominant issue. This has not yet become apparent as Republican senators and congressmen have loyally defended their president against political attacks, many of which are over the top, but the time is coming when, for reasons of sheer self-preservation, Republican members will begin to openly support some sort of orderly American withdrawl from active combat operations. 

This is not to say there won’t continue to be disagreements about future Iraq policy. Most leftists will accept nothing less than full-scale immediate withdrawl, a course that most Republicans and a few realist Democrats will resist as disastrous to future American credibility in that important region. Such a realist Democratic viewpoint might come from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), who has advocated retaining a substantial residual force in Iraq.

But if and when Petraeus issues his expected mixed verdict on the surge (some positives, some negatives) in mid-September, the hunt will be on for Plan B to forestall a hasty American retreat. What policies might be part of such a Plan B?

First, it will be necessary to keep a much smaller residual force in the country, even as we begin to withdraw from active combat operations in Baghdad. The force will focus on locating and destroying al Qaeda units, stemming the flow of men and material from Iran and Syria, protecting the oil fields and continuing to actively train Iraqi Army and police units.

Second, the U.S. might wish to establish that base among the Kurds in Northern Iraq to assuage the concern of the Turks about a potentially independent Kurdistan, to help protect the Kurds from hostile forces in the rest of the country, and to establish some “safe haven” for the much smaller U.S. force that will remain in country.

Third, the U.S. might engage Syria and Iran diplomatically as a possible way to eventually bring some stability to Iraq as an alternative to a bloodbath and region-wide destabilization. This was specifically recommended by the Iraq Study Group and received widespread Democratic and Republican support.

The rough outlines of this will be negotiated as the regular defense bill and then a supplemental spending bill are debated and ultimately approved. What is certain is that the American presence will be dramatically decreased in '08 and beyond. What is less certain is the shape of the country and government that we will leave behind.