Good Sense on Iraq

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

DEFENSE Secretary Robert M. Gates on Monday exhibited the sort of sensible and pragmatic judgment on Iraq that has been sorely missing in Washington during the past five years. Mr. Gates took office 14 months ago with the goal of reshaping the U.S. mission so that it would be sustainable past the end of the Bush administration; to that end he publicly embraced the goal of reducing the U.S. troop level to 10 brigades, or about 100,000 troops, by the end of this year. That would be a sharp reduction from the peak of 20 combat brigades and more than 170,000 troops after last year's "surge" -- which has succeeded in dramatically reducing violence in greater Baghdad and western Iraq.

After meeting in Baghdad with U.S. commander Gen. David H. Petraeus, Mr. Gates announced a change of tack. He said he agreed with Gen. Petraeus and other U.S. commanders that after the already-announced drawdown to 15 brigades and 130,000 troops by July, there should be "a brief period of consolidation and evaluation" before any further withdrawals are ordered. That means it's unlikely that the U.S. troop level will reach 100,000 by the time the next president takes office. But it also means that Mr. Gates is listening to his commanders and reacting to the actual situation in Iraq rather than insisting on a preconceived policy.

His judgment looks sound. The progress since last summer has been remarkable: In Baghdad, where a sectarian war seemed to be spiraling out of control a year ago, the number of attacks dropped 75 percent from June to last month. U.S. casualties since Oct. 1 are half the average for 2006, and the lowest for any similar period since the war began. But as Gen. Petraeus repeatedly has emphasized, the gains are fragile. It's not certain that the relative peace in and around Baghdad will hold as American troop levels come down. A pause to weigh the situation -- commanders are reportedly thinking of 30 to 90 days -- would help ensure that what now looks like an opportunity to stabilize Iraq would not be squandered, along with the American lives sacrificed for it.

Thanks to Mr. Gates's readiness to adjust, it's more likely that President Bush's successor will inherit an Iraq that is moving slowly toward stability rather than spiraling into chaos. So it's worth asking why Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton remain so unwilling to alter their outdated and dogmatic views about the war. Both issued statements Monday denouncing Mr. Gates's statement and the proposed pause in withdrawals; both stubbornly refuse to acknowledge that the changed situation in Iraq requires a rethinking of their plans for the rapid withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops. As Mr. Gates has recognized, to mechanically yank U.S. forces from Iraq according to a timetable inspired by American domestic politics, just when the troops appear to be succeeding, would be foolhardy as well as dangerous.

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