Iraq Forever?

Having lost the battle over the surge, Democrats in the Senate are back to an incrementalist approach to the war. After Bush endorsed General David Petraeus's plan to return to pre-surge combat strength of about 130,000 troops in Iraq by the end of July, the Democrats mobilized.

Senator Jim Webb, the Vietnam veteran who won his Virginia seat last year on an antiwar platform, will push forward for a third time with his bill mandating that troops serving in Iraq remain at home for at least an equivalent amount of time as their deployments. The bill is a two-fer: Not only does it take a large burden off the Army's shoulders, but it would, in practice, constrain the Pentagon's ability to keep troop strength in Iraq at Petraeus' desired levels. Unsurprisingly, Defense Secretary Bob Gates replied on Friday that Webb's "well-intentioned" bill would create problems for the next year's meticulously planned deployment calendar -- and in any event, he'd prefer to drop down to 100,000 troops in Iraq by the end of 2008.

If the current debate between Webb and Gates over force postures remains on those terms, it'll be a sober, mature and respectful accounting between serious defense professionals. It may well result in a more sensible deployment schedule for active-duty Army soldiers in Iraq, who now face an unprecedented "deployment-to-dwell" ratio of 15 months in Iraq to 12 months at home. And it will obscure the starkest fact to emerge from last week's Petraeus/Crocker hearings: The U.S. will remain in Iraq, in some capacity, forever.

One of President Bush's most under-appreciated maneuvers of 2007 was his recasting of the debate over the war into a debate over the surge. Commentators endlessly interpreted the surge as a "last chance" for the war to succeed -- something the Bush administration, crucially, never promised. But as a result of this misperception, endless inquiry over the last several months has focused on whether the surge has succeeded on its own terms: whether it pacified Baghdad; whether it deserves credit for the Sunni tribal shift against al-Qaeda; whether it nurtured a glacial sectarian reconciliation. It's a pattern of analysis that rests on a simple proposition: Since the surge is the last chance for the war to succeed, if it has failed, then the war must be brought to an end.

That proposition is false. Whatever the surge's virtues, (is a reduction in sectarian violence in Baghdad the result of better U.S. strategy or the fruit of a victorious Shiite strategy to cleanse Baghdad of Sunnis?) it has had a clear political benefit for the president, turning criticism of the war into criticism of a slice of the war. General Petraeus made it clear last week that the infusion of troops into Baghdad was what allowed him to emphasize a strategy of population protection that doesn't apply in less-troop dense areas of Iraq, so when troop strength returns to 2006 levels, the strategy will accordingly shift. Those who criticize Petraeus because they want to stop the war will have gained little more ground than they occupied in December 2006.

What will the White House have gained? For one thing, an enduring presence in Iraq. In his speech, Bush said that "Iraqi leaders" -- whom he meant, he left unstated -- have "asked for an enduring relationship with America" extending "beyond my presidency." What was once a commitment to remain in Iraq "as long as necessary, and not one day more" is now an admission that "we are ready to begin building that [enduring] relationship."

No one should be surprised. America tends not to invest nearly a trillion dollars and thousands of lives in places it means to leave. Bush's comments have precedent in Gates' June remarks that Korea was a better parallel for Iraq than Vietnam -- Korea, of course, being a place where U.S. troops have guaranteed stability for half a century. Finally, when General Petraeus outlined his plan for troop reductions in Congress last week, its final phase stopped with five U.S. brigades, a strength of about 20,000 to 25,000 troops, still in Iraq. Petraeus didn't box himself in with any timeline by which the United States will reach that reduced presence, but his chart extends outward, indefinitely. Behold: the enduring relationship. Never mind that the latest BBC/ABC/NHK poll of Iraqis found a statistically insignificant number who want American troops never to leave.

If there's one single characteristic that defines the coming U.S.-Iraq relationship, it's that it's emerging in the complete absence of debate. Perhaps as a testimony to her inflated reputation, no one in Congress is bothering to ask Secretary of State Condoleezza what the administration wants the U.S.'s diplomatic and military commitment to Iraq to be by January 2009. It's true that the U.S. has enduring interests in Iraq, which largely boil down to counterterrorism and, as Alan Greenspan has helpfully conceded, oil. And not even the most hardcore war opponents propose, say, cutting diplomatic or economic ties with Baghdad, so some relationship with Iraq is destined to endure. But, true to form, there's a complete absence of guidance emerging from the administration about what it wants from a long-term commitment to Iraq. (Leave aside for a moment the likelihood that Iraq has yet to resemble practically anything that the Bush administration has ever planned.)

This week, the Senate will take up defense policy once again, and once again, Webb's worthy amendment will go up for a vote. Democratic leader Harry Reid has abandoned previous pledges to put forward a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq, knowing that the Senate doesn't have the 67 votes, and in the hope that bills like Webb's can attract the GOP support necessary to stop the war incrementally.

It may well be a sensible approach. But while Reid and the Democrats have little option but to think in terms of the next political skirmish over the war, the Bush administration, completely in private, is sketching out a commitment to Iraq intended to last for decades. Bush got his way on the surge largely due to an unrecognized myopia by his opponents. If the trend continues, he stands a good chance of turning a catastrophic war into an open-ended commitment that his successors will have a hard time limiting.

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