General David Petraeus' testimony Tuesday and Wednesday of this week will be another chapter in U.S. foreign policy's long-running "is the surge working?" debate. The General and Ambassador Ryan Crocker will offer up some good news counterpoints to the not-so-good news out of Basra from the last weekend of March. But in the ways that matter, there's no need to debate in the present tense -- the surge isn't working, it's already worked, and the question is what the Democrats plan to do about it.
To evaluate the surge, you have to consider its goals. Peter Feaver, who spent years working on the National Security Council on Iraq issues as a specialist on domestic public opinion, has explained in Commentary the administration's desire "to develop and implement a workable strategy that could be handed over to Bush's successor." Or as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden less charitably put it there's no plan at all other than "to muddle through and hand the problem off to his successor."
Given the Bush administration's goals -- primarily to rescue their legacy from its current disastrous shape -- policy and partisan politics are closely linked. Consider where we stood eighteen months ago, just after the 2006 midterm elections. Republican members of Congress were running scared after substantial electoral defeats driven by public disgruntlement with Iraq. This set the stage for the Democrats' preferred political strategy, in which they would join together with moderate (and vulnerable) Republicans to force the war to start winding-down without needing to do anything risky like deny a presidential request for a emergency war-related appropriations. This would have in turn been disastrous for the Bush legacy, he would have launched an unprovoked war with Iraq and then lost it.
The surge was the antidote, and it worked brilliantly. Combined with some well-timed primary challenges to try to purge the House of GOP dissenters and Senator Chuck Hagel's decision to retire, it created a Republican Party utterly committed to the Iraq venture and willing to march in lockstep against anti-war initiatives from the Democrats. This allowed congressional Republicans to sustain a veto of a timeline-laden war supplemental back last year and created a situation where the only means by which Democrats could stop the war was to refuse, along party lines, to vote money for it. That was a political risk party leaders wouldn't take it, ensuring that the war will continue. Meanwhile, thanks to the elevated surge-related troop levels, minor withdrawals can take place throughout the 2008 election year and still leave the total number of forces in Iraq in November essentially where they were in 2006.
Iraq will, in short, be handed off to Bush's successor. The administration can even hope that the surge's apparent success in reducing American casualty rates (better than the reverse, but hardly a worthwhile strategic accomplishment -- we could get casualties much lower by simply leaving) will eventually reduce either the war's unpopularity or else the war's salience enough to put McCain in office. But even if McCain loses, the administration can still hope for an outcome that allows them to blame failure not on the war's architects but on the Democrats, thus allowing the president's legacy -- and the larger cause of an imperial vision of American foreign policy -- to live to fight another day, much as revisionist takes on Vietnam gained adherents in the 1980s and 90s.
Under the circumstances, it's imperative that Democrats running this year seek a clearer political mandate from the voters than they got in 2006 and move swiftly to implement it if they win. Something along the lines of the Responsible Plan to End the War in Iraq, proposed by a clutch of Democratic House challengers, is the way to go. The presidential candidates, by contrast, have been pretty cagey about what, exactly, they intend to do if they win. Meanwhile, think tanks that house the next generation of Democratic executive branch appointees continue to churn out would-be third way positions like the Center for a New American Security's strategy for "conditional engagement" in Iraq.
Such strategies can and should be criticized on their substantive merits, but the broader progressive community must also recognize that they represent an enormous political risk. To take over from the Bush administration and then change strategies would be, in effect, to assume responsibility for Bush's folly -- an enormous unforced political error. If, by contrast, Democrats squarely tell the public that U.S. military engagement with Iraq has no good strategic rationale and win an election, they'll then be set up to bring the war to a rapid conclusion with the understanding that the inevitable fallout is, like the previous five years of war, the responsibility of the blunder of initially invading. Anything short of a clear promise to withdraw, matched with determination to actually do it, will play right into Bush's hands. He's hoping to pass the Iraq baton to his successor, leaving him (or, less likely, her) stuck with the paralyzing establishment view re-iterated in a recent U.S. Institute of Peace report that we're making no progress in Iraq, but daren't withdraw precisely because of that lack of progress. But to mix metaphors, Bush's baton is actually a hand grenade -- or maybe a highly radioactive plutonium rod -- and Democrats' best choice is to let it drop as quickly and cleanly as possible.