After the Surge

Sunday, June 3, 2007

THE BUSH administration's invocation of South Korea as a model for the future of the U.S. military mission in Iraq is misleading in some ways. Opponents of the war, such as Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), tend to jump to the conclusion that President Bush hopes to keep American troops in Iraq for 50 years; in fact, as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates explained, the administration's real point is that Iraq should not end like Vietnam, with a "lock, stock and barrel" pullout before the conflict ends. But if the Korea analogy exaggerates the likely length of the Iraq mission, it also makes it sound easier than it should. Following the armistice that ended the Korean war, the U.S. mission there suffered few casualties. For the foreseeable future, any U.S. military presence in Iraq will mean a continuing and painful cost in American lives.

It nevertheless makes sense for Mr. Bush to begin focusing the Iraq debate on the need for an American presence beyond the current surge of troops in Baghdad and beyond his own administration. So far the results of the surge have been "small," according to a senior U.S. commander in Baghdad, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno. While the deployment of more American troops may further improve security in the capital during the summer, there's not much chance that all or even most of the political benchmarks written into the funding legislation passed by Congress will be met. In that case Mr. Bush will face extraordinary pressure in the fall to change tactics and begin a withdrawal of American troops. The Korea analogies of last week and other recent statements by the president are encouraging signs that rather than fight another battle with Congress Mr. Bush may, as he put it during his last news conference, try to "find common ground with Democrats and Republicans" on "a kind of long-term basis" for stabilizing Iraq.

The best formula for that consensus is well known: It is the Baker-Hamilton plan, which calls for the gradual withdrawal of most U.S. combat troops and the refocusing of the mission on training the Iraqi army, fighting al-Qaeda and defending Iraq from incursions by its neighbors. The administration is reportedly considering plans for reducing the number of American combat brigades next year, which could cut the overall troop level from more than 150,000 to 100,000 or less. Troop withdrawals must be connected to developments on the ground: U.S. commanders will try to hand off authority in Baghdad to Iraqi forces so that the gains of the surge will not be lost. But the sooner the American force is reconfigured for training and rapid reaction, the more likely it is that mission will attract support from Americans and from Congress.

Such support is desperately needed. As painful and costly as the war in Iraq has been, the United States stands to lose far more if it simply abandons a country in the heart of the Middle East and hands a victory to al-Qaeda and other extremists. Like most states emerging from decades of repression, Iraq is likely to take years to stabilize; as its politicians and U.S. commanders keep saying, it will not conform to Washington's timetables. Whether the United States endures through those years and continues to defend, train and support moderate Iraqi forces will do much to determine what the country looks like when it finally settles -- whether it is allied with liberal and modernizing forces in the Middle East or with suicide bombers. What's needed is not a continued surge of American forces but a mission that will be materially and politically sustainable. Now is the time for Congress and the Bush administration to begin talking about what that mission should be.

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