President George W. Bush's behavior gets more baffling every day. Most leaders in his predicament would be recalibrating their rhetoric, seeking to alter expectations, so that the inevitable drawdown of U.S. troops from Iraq won't appear to be a defeat.
Instead, Bush is doing the opposite. Twice this past week, he has appeared before his most bedrock base (the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars), promised to give his commanders whatever they need for victory, and lambasted Congress for so much as contemplating withdrawal, a step, he warned, that would imperil civilization and free peoples everywhere.
He is willfully ignoring two facts. First, almost nobody in a position of power or much influence is advocating a complete withdrawal from Iraq. Second, a partial withdrawal is certain to take place in the next nine months, and this has nothing to do with Congress.
This has been noted time and time again, but apparently it bears repeating: The U.S. Army and Marines are simply running out of combat troops.
Adm. Michael Mullen, the incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified at his confirmation hearings last month that the "surge" in Iraq could not be sustained at present levels past April 2008.
There are a few ways to remedy this shortfall, all of them impractical or infeasible. First, soldiers' tours of duty in Iraq, which were recently extended from 12 months to 15 months, could be stretched further to 18 months. However, Gen. Richard Cody, the Army's vice chief of staff, told me, during a recent interview for a separate story, that this idea is "off the table." As it should be: The relentless rotation cycles have already compelled many soldiers and junior officers to quit the Army; pushing duty and tolerance much further might not just exhaust the troops beyond limits but spark an exodus from the armed forces.
Gen. Cody said his personal preference is the "full mobilization" of the Reserves. A president does have the statutory authority to call up to a million reservists, including retirees, into active service for the duration of a war or an emergency. But this step hasn't been taken since World War II, and for good reason: It would be a huge social disruption; and, unless a president persuades the population that it's necessary—unless the war is almost universally seen as vital to the nation's security—the call up would have politically explosive consequences as well. (Lyndon Johnson expanded the draft rather than fully mobilize the Reserves during the Vietnam War.) There is no sign that Bush is preparing the public for such a dramatic step now.
Another option would be to persuade other countries to send more troops, but those that aren't long gone are in the process of leaving. Finally, there's the draft, which just isn't going to happen and, in any case, it would take well over a year to call up, train, equip, and deploy fresh brigades for combat.
The long and short of it is that by next spring some of the 20 U.S. combat brigades currently in Iraq—perhaps as many as a quarter to a half of them—will be pulling out, and nobody will replace them. This is a mathematical fact, quite apart from anything to do with the upcoming election or the war's diminishing popularity.
Whether or not you regard this fact as lamentable, President Bush only makes things worse by howling that any pullback would erode American power and embolden the terrorists. Even if his warning is true, for a president to state it so urgently, over and over and over and over, deepens the damage when the storm hits. And given that the storm is certain to hit, it's irresponsible—it's baffling—that he's howling so loudly.