Sen. Richard Lugar’s comments on Iraq came like a clap of thunder in the sultry summer skies of Washington. The ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee declared in a widely covered speech last week that he doesn’t think “the current ‘surge’ strategy will succeed” and that we should therefore “downsize the U.S. military’s role in Iraq.” Other Republicans also have expressed frustration and impatience with the war effort, warning that they may start to defect unless there are substantial signs of progress by September, which is unlikely.
It is not hard to see what lies behind this growing unease. The probability of impending defeat — in elections, not wars — concentrates the minds of politicians like nothing else, and there is fear verging on panic within GOP ranks that if the situation in Iraq remains unchanged in 2008, the party may suffer the mother of all drubbings. Dick Morris, that reliable weather vane, captured the mood: “It is Iraq that is dragging the president’s ratings down and killing his party’s chances in the election…. If he began to pull out troops, he could begin to recover his personal ratings and move his party up.”
To justify what is essentially a poll-driven cave-in, Republicans are telling themselves that abandoning the surge is not only good politics, it’s good policy. The argument goes like this: Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and the Iraqi politicians aren’t delivering results fast enough for a fed-up American electorate, making a complete, precipitous withdrawal increasingly likely following a Democrat victory in 2008, if not sooner. So instead of waiting for the worst, the administration should preemptively start cutting forces to a more politically sustainable level for the long haul.
The Center for a New American Security, a new centrist Democratic think tank in Washington, offered a blueprint for this strategy that suggests ending the surge immediately and reducing U.S. troop levels from today’s 160,000 to no more than 60,000 by the end of 2008. The reduction of combat forces would be coupled with a temporary increase in embedded advisors. The ultimate objective is to withdraw all U.S. troops from the country (but not the region) by 2012 — the end of the next president’s first term of office.
This is a seductive vision for Republicans anxious to limit the political fallout from Iraq while comforting themselves that vital national interests are not being imperiled. But is it really possible to remove more than half of our troops that fast and still meet even minimal objectives?
The administration tried to cut U.S. troop levels and turn over authority to the Iraqi Security Forces in 2005-06. The result was a horrific increase in violence that pushed Iraq to the brink of a civil war and America to the edge of defeat. Iraqi forces continue to improve, but there is no reason to think they would be any more capable of standing up to Shiite and Sunni extremists on their own today than they were last year.
Operating in close cooperation with substantial American forces, however, the Iraqis can fight effectively and make real progress. Look at what’s happened in Anbar province in the past year. Attacks and casualties are down dramatically. Sunni tribes have been cooperating with American forces in the fight against Al Qaeda. But that cooperation is unlikely to last if the Sunnis perceive that most Americans are heading for the exits. The tribes are still not strong enough to stand against Al Qaeda on their own, and stripped of U.S. protection, they would have to seek accommodation with the cutthroats, turning their province into a hotbed of Taliban-style extremism.
The same thing would happen elsewhere in Iraq, including places like Baghdad, where the surge has already shown modest signs of progress. (Sectarian murders in the capital are down 50% since January.) A major pullout of U.S. forces would empower militias and terrorists. Our allies would feel abandoned. Our remaining troops would feel demoralized. (Recall the collapse of morale among U.S. soldiers in Vietnam after withdrawal began in 1969.) The Iraqi Security Forces might well collapse.
It is hard to see how that would advance the “four primary objectives” of American policy cited by Lugar — to stop Iraq from becoming a terrorist stronghold, preserve regional stability, limit Iranian influence and preserve our credibility. The resulting chaos would only make it harder to sustain public support for any troop presence, whether 60,000 or 160,000.
It also would do Republicans little good politically. Voters are disgusted with the GOP for launching the war in Iraq because it has not gone well. They are not likely to become less vengeful if we leave in defeat and gloating Al Qaeda kingpins fill the airwaves. Only an improvement in the on-the-ground situation is likely to reverse Republican political fortunes.
That means continuing to back Petraeus and his surge strategy. It is wildly premature to say, as many do, that the surge has already failed. In truth, it has barely begun. The last of the additional U.S. troops just moved into their “battle space.” It was only on June 15 that the U.S. command launched Operation Phantom Thunder — using all of its forces to simultaneously target multiple insurgent strongholds in Baghdad and its “belts.” The results won’t be clear for months — probably not until early next year.
The U.S. military is overstretched, but it can sustain the surge for that long. Current planning assumes that today’s force of 21 brigades will remain in Iraq until spring of next year. If those troops manage to stabilize the situation, that may make possible the necessary political compromises among Iraqi factions that are not forthcoming in today’s lawless atmosphere.
At that point, the U.S. could begin responsibly drawing down its troops toward a long-term level of 60,000 to 80,000. To do so now, when the security situation remains so unsettled, risks catastrophe.
Petraeus faces a tough fight, but he remains confident that he can succeed. He would not be risking the lives of his soldiers otherwise.
If weak-kneed politicians in Washington deny him a fair chance to implement the surge, it would be, to quote Talleyrand, worse than a crime; it would be a blunder.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.