Bush's can't-lose policy reversal.

Military analysis.
Nov. 28 2005 7:14 PM

Bush's Can't-Lose Reversal

Wednesday's speech will set the agenda for withdrawal from Iraq.

Be ready for a timetable. Click on image to expand.
Be ready for a timetable

Brace yourself for a mind-bog of sheer cynicism. The discombobulation begins Wednesday, when President George W. Bush is expected to proclaim, in a major speech at the U.S. Naval Academy, that the Iraqi security forces—which only a few months ago were said to have just one battalion capable of fighting on its own—have suddenly made uncanny progress in combat readiness. Expect soon after (if not during the speech itself) the thing that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have, just this month, denounced as near-treason—a timetable for withdrawal of American troops.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan

Fred Kaplan is the author of The Insurgents and the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

And so it appears (assuming the forecasts about the speech are true) that the White House is as cynical about this war as its cynical critics have charged it with being. For several months now, many of these critics have predicted that, once the Iraqis passed their constitution and elected a new government, President Bush would declare his mission complete and begin to pull out—this, despite his public pledge to "stay the course" until the insurgents were defeated.

This theory explains Bush's insistence that the Iraqis draft and ratify the constitution on schedule—even though the rush resulted in a seriously flawed document that's more likely to fracture the country than to unite it. For if the pullout can get under way in the opening weeks of 2006, then the war might be nullified as an issue by the time of our own elections.

The political beauty of this scenario is that, even if Iraq remains mired in chaos or seems to be hurtling toward civil war, nobody in Congress is going to call for a halt, much less a reversal, of the withdrawal. The Republicans will fall in line; many of them have been nervous that the war's perpetuation, with its rising toll and dim horizons, might cost them their seats. And who among the Democrats will choose to outflank Bush on his right wing and advocate—as some were doing not so long ago—keeping the troops in Iraq for another five or 10 years or even boosting their numbers. (The question is so rhetorical, it doesn't warrant a question mark.)

In short, Bush could pull a win-win-win out of this shift. He could pre-empt the Democrats' main line of attack against his administration, stave off the prospect of (from the GOP's perspective) disastrous elections in 2006 and '08, and, as a result, bolster his presidency's otherwise dwindling authority within his own party and among the general population.

The signs are clear, in any case, that a substantial withdrawal—or redeployment—is at hand. Top U.S. military officers have been privately warning for some time that current troop levels in Iraq cannot be sustained for another year or two without straining the Army to the breaking point. Rep. John Murtha's agenda-altering Nov. 17 call for an immediate redeployment was not only a genuine cri de coeur but also, quite explicitly, a public assertion of the military's institutional interests—and an acknowledgment of Congress' electoral interests.

Murtha wasn't merely advocating redeployment; he was practically announcing it. As he told Tim Russert on the Nov. 20 Meet the Press, "There's nobody that talks to people in the Pentagon more than I do. … We're going to be out of there very quickly, and it's going to be close to the plan that I'm presenting right now."

If any doubts remained about the administration's coming course, they should have been dispelled on Nov. 22, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told CNN, "I suspect that American forces are not going to be needed in the numbers that they are now that much longer." (She repeated the point that same day on Fox News.)

Lost in this juggernaut toward a new consensus for withdrawal is whether it's the right course to take. I think it is, for many of the same reasons that Murtha, Sen. Joseph Biden (another recent convert), and others have laid out. The most compelling of these reasons is the most strictly pragmatic. As long as American troops stay there in high visibility and large numbers, Iraq will remain a weak, unstable state. The insurgency's ranks will swell with those who are simply opposed to occupation, especially a Christian occupation, with the result that nationalism, sectarianism, and jihadism will converge, to grave consequences for U.S. interests and Middle Eastern stability. Beyond that, Iraqi officials will not take their security responsibilities seriously, knowing that they can lean back on the Americans. As Professor Barry Posen of MIT has put it, the U.S. military presence "infantilizes" Iraqi politics.

At the same time, the U.S. presence is vital to Iraq's security for now and for several months to come. Juan Cole, a persistent critic of the war and Bush's policies, argues persuasively that an excessively swift or unthinking withdrawal would almost certainly trigger total disorder and possibly a civil war with casualties 10 times greater than the present melee has wreaked.

President Bush is going to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq. That no longer seems in doubt. The question is: How does he plan to do it? Which troops will come out first? How quickly? Where will they go? Under what circumstances will they be put back in? Which troops will remain, and what will they do? How will they keep a profile low enough to make the Iraqi government seem genuinely autonomous yet high enough to help deter or stave off internal threats? Who will keep the borders secure, a task for which the Iraqi army doesn't even pretend to have the slightest capability? What kinds of diplomatic arrangements will he make with Iraq's neighbors—who have their own conflicting interests in the country's future—to assure an international peace?

More to the point, does the president have a plan for all this? (The point is far from facetious; it's tragically clear, after all, that he didn't have a plan for how to fight the war if it extended beyond the collapse of Saddam.) Has he entertained these questions, much less devised some shrewd answers? If he's serious about a withdrawal or redeployment that's strategically sensible, as opposed to politically opportune, we should hear about them in his speech Wednesday night.