The Phony Debate

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Saturday, July 21, 2007

THE SENATE Democratic leadership spent the past week trying to prove that Congress is deeply divided over Iraq, with Democrats pressing and Republicans resisting a change of course. In fact that's far from the truth. A large majority of senators from both parties favor a shift in the U.S. mission that would involve substantially reducing the number of American forces over the next year or so and rededicating those remaining to training the Iraqi army, protecting Iraq's borders and fighting al-Qaeda. President Bush and his senior aides and generals also support this broad strategy, which was formulated by the bipartisan Baker-Hamilton commission. Mr. Bush recently said that "it's a position I'd like to see us in."

The emerging consensus is driven by several inescapable facts. First, the Iraqi political reconciliation on which the current U.S. military surge is counting is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Second, the Pentagon cannot sustain the current level of forces in Iraq beyond next spring without rupturing current deployment practices and placing new demands on the already stretched Army and Marine Corps. Finally, a complete pullout from Iraq would invite genocide, regional war and a catastrophic setback to U.S. national

security.

The decision of Democrats led by Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) to deny rather than nourish a bipartisan agreement is, of course, irresponsible. But so was Mr. Reid's answer when he was asked by the Los Angeles Times how the United States should manage the explosion of violence that the U.S. intelligence community agrees would follow a rapid pullout. "That's a hypothetical. I'm not going to get into it," the paper quoted the Democratic leader as saying.

For now Mr. Reid's cynical politicking and willful blindness to the stakes in Iraq don't matter so much. The result of his maneuvering was to postpone congressional debate until September, when Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, will report on results of the surge -- in other words, just the outcome the White House was hoping for. But then, as now, the country will desperately need a strategy for Iraq that can count on broad bipartisan support, one aimed at carrying the U.S. mission through the end of the Bush administration and beyond. There are serious issues still to resolve, such as whether a drawdown should begin this fall or next year, how closely it should be tied to Iraqi progress, how fast it can proceed and how the remaining forces should be deployed.

There's no guarantee that Mr. Bush can agree with Congress on those points or that he will make the effort to do so. But a Democratic strategy of trying to use Iraq as a polarizing campaign issue and as a club against moderate Republicans who are up for reelection will certainly have the effect of making consensus impossible -- and deepening the trouble for Iraq and for American security.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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