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Rhetorical Battleground Shifts on Iraq

Prepared by: Greg Bruno
August 23, 2007

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The next phase of the White House showdown with Congress over Iraq troop-withdrawal timetables was expected to begin with mid-September progress reports. But President Bush is taking preemptive action with speeches seizing on some security gains attributed to the surge and reinforcing warnings about chaos in the event of a pullout. In a speech to veterans on August 22, Bush drew on historical parallels from Vietnam to argue against a premature departure from Iraq. He is expected to amplify his case at the American Legion Convention in Nevada on August 28, and again a week later en route to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Australia.

Bush has likely been buoyed by reports from Democratic lawmakers who made trips to Iraq this summer, many of whom have noted security improvements on the ground. Democrats had hoped to use the August recess to ratchet up the pressure on Republicans in advance of next month’s hearings. Instead, they’ve been “forced to recalibrate their own message,” says a Washington Post analysis. Some Democratic congressmen are now suggesting immediate withdrawal timelines may no longer be necessary, a notable shift. Rep. Brian Baird, a five-term Democrat from Washington who voted against the war, says the surge appears to be working (Olympian).

Freshman Congressman Jerry McNerney (D-CA), who led a bipartisan trip to Iraq in July with other first-term lawmakers, said he returned more willing to compromise (AP) on a deadline for withdrawal. The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin (D-MI), issued a statement on August 20 with Sen. John Warner (R-VA) noting progress in securing Baghdad and Anbar province. Democratic presidential candidates Senators Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Barack Obama (D-IL) have both cited some military progress.

But Levin, Clinton, Obama, and others have underscored the scant political progress on Iraqi benchmarks, a top aim of the military surge, and they continue to back a withdrawal timetable. Sure to feed the debate is a new National Intelligence Estimate, the second this year focusing on Iraq’s prospects for overcoming sectarian strife. The report casts doubt (NYT) on the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. On August 22, President Bush offered a fresh endorsement of the embattled leader after appearing to distance himself a day earlier. But Maliki’s support may be fleeting anyway. U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, who will deliver one of next month’s progress reports, has expressed dissatisfaction (AP) with the government’s performance. For his part, Maliki blames the U.S. presidential race (Guardian) for the string of recent attacks on his leadership.

Some predict the spirited policy defense and pro-Bush ad campaigns by administration supporters may reap the GOP benefits next month. CFR’s Charles A. Kupchan says Democrats should recognize this now and move to introduce bills that have a chance for bipartisan support, such as partial troop-withdrawal initiatives. James Dobbins, an expert on post-conflict zones at the RAND Corporation, writes in the new Foreign Affairs that Congress needs to start thinking more broadly about the country’s security needs, in particular legislating a reorganization of the national security establishment “so that it can better conduct postwar stabilization and reconstruction missions.”

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