What This Week Has Told Us About the Way Forward in Iraq

Unless you work for a presidential campaign, the only political topic relevant this week is Iraq and American policy moving forward. Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker have completed two grueling days of testimony before the House and Senate and have laid out their case for continuing the troop surge for at least another six months. The two witnesses argued that the security and military gains are real and that we are seeing the beginnings of political reconciliation at the local, if not yet at the national, level. The developments in Anbar province are only the most noticeable example of this trend.

At the end of this week, several things will be evident about our future course in Iraq. 

First, the Petraeus testimony was a major plus for the administration. Gen. Petraeus is as impressive a witness as he is an outstanding general. For the first time, we have a strategy that has a chance to be successful, and there are real reasons for optimism. Petraeus is by far the most credible spokesman for the administration’s position. By contrast, the ultra-radical MoveOn.org looked petulant and foolish in its over-the-top criticisms and forced Democrats to disassociate themselves from its tactics.

Second, the president will certainly have the votes to defeat any attempt to set a congressional timetable for troop withdrawal or to cut off funding for continued deployment and operations in Iraq. One measure of this optimism is discussion of bringing back the Department of Defense authorization bill for congressional approval without a killer Iraq amendment attached. Passage of this bill and the appropriations bill would shield DoD from the effects of a potential government shutdown because of a budget stalemate.

Third, as the general proposed, the surge will end next year as American troops begin to come home. The president has already accepted this recommendation. This is due to the progress in Iraq but also to the realization that the current troop levels are not sustainable over the long term. If Democrats were smart, they would declare victory and take some credit for the draw-down. However, their leftist base will not accept anything less than American withdrawal, and presumably defeat, in Iraq, and so the angry rhetoric will continue.

Fourth, while troops will be withdrawn throughout 2008, there will be a force still remaining in Iraq when our new president is elected. The question then becomes: Do we maintain some residual force in that country? If a Republican is elected, the answer will be yes. All of the Republican candidates (save Texas Republican Rep. Ron Paul) are committed to continued stabilization of an independent Iraq that can withstand meddling from Iran and Syria and subversion by al Qaeda.

If a Democrat is elected, the situation is murkier. John Edwards, Bill Richardson and probably Barack Obama will follow through on their pledges for a quick and total withdrawal. Hillary Clinton and Joseph Biden have spoken in the past of the need for some residual force in Iraq to fight terrorism and dampen Iranian influence. This is really the debate that is worth listening to on the Democratic side: Would a Democratic president really abandon Iraq if a non-terrorist and stable Iraq is still a possibility?

More in Defense

Clinton: Iraq vote was 'a mistake, plain and simple'

Read more »