Panics have a logic of their own. Once they ripple through a crowd, all reason is discarded. The Senate Republican caucus is in a panic at the moment, elbowing one another aside to follow Dick Lugar in calling for a change of strategy in the Iraq War.
They are vague on what exactly that new strategy should be, but the thrust of it is that we need to begin drawing down troops in Iraq sooner rather than later. They aren’t ready to endorse Democratic legislation explicitly calling for immediate withdrawals yet, but many of them — including last week’s star dissident Republican, Sen. Pete Domenici — are endorsing the Salazar-Alexander bill to write into law the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group and end our combat role in Iraq by the end of March 2008.
Since that bill doesn’t seem likely to win liberal support in the Senate in the near term, it probably won’t win a majority, and is a safe place for nervous Republicans to park their support without yet forcing Bush’s hand. But the dynamic created by the break with the president has a momentum of its own, and the New York Times reported Monday that forces within the administration are considering ways to appease the panicked senators by offering a White House drawdown plan. This would be a catastrophic mistake.
We trust that President Bush knows that he cannot honorably discard the surge that he ordered and that has only recently been fully implemented. Only a few days ago, in a July Fourth speech, he said that the Iraq War would require still “more patience, more courage, and more sacrifice.” Unfortunately, that is true. Even in his reduced political state, Bush is commander in chief, and as long as he holds firm, it will be difficult for Congress to force him to withdraw troops.
The Wall Street Journal reported last week, however, that Defense Secretary Robert Gates is spearheading an effort to find an alternative to the surge. He hopes to develop bipartisan support around a reduced U.S. role in Iraq, on the model of the “Cold War consensus” to contain the Soviet Union. Perhaps Gates hasn’t watched any of the Democratic presidential debates or listened to Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid lately, but his quest is foolhardy. Democrats want out of Iraq, period.
The Republicans breaking with Bush, in contrast, don’t appear to be moved by such a deep-seated conviction on policy. Many of them are just worried about their poll ratings. But winning in Iraq should be more important, and they are misreading the politics in any case. If they force a premature drawdown, they will get no credit for belatedly endorsing the Democrats’ position, and will share blame for the deterioration in conditions in Iraq that will inevitably occur throughout 2008.
It is folly to dismiss the surge as a failure. It has — unevenly — brought down the number of sectarian killings in Baghdad and the number of civilian casualties around the country. Most important, it has helped turn the tide against al Qaeda in Iraq, as Sunni tribes side with us against the terror group.
Critics of the surge point to increased U.S. casualties and the failure of the central government to meet political “benchmarks” by passing important legislation. The increased casualties are the awful but inevitable result of our increased combat operations, and in no way a sign that the surge isn’t working. The lack of political progress in Baghdad is disappointing, but has to be kept in perspective. The reason we wanted key pieces of legislation to pass was that we thought they would promote reconciliation with the Sunnis and split some of them from the insurgency. That has happened anyway, without the meeting of “benchmarks.”
This is an extremely consequential development. To build on it, the central government will indeed have to share resources equitably with the Sunnis, but that is going to be a difficult step. Critics of the war seem to forget that — at best — this is a country just beginning to step back from the intense sectarian conflict of 2006, and it will take time to heal those wounds. Our role is to provide the security that is a necessary condition for political reconciliation.
In the meantime, we are dealing al Qaeda in Iraq serious blows. Everyone in the American political debate professes to want to fight al Qaeda in Iraq, but now that we are finally doing it effectively Democrats and some Republicans are all but ignoring it. Defeating al Qaeda should be our minimum goal in Iraq no matter what broader policy we choose, whether it is simply a U.S. bugout, a so-called soft partition, or the eventual establishment of a stable, self-sufficient government. If we draw down now, we would give back our hard-won progress against al Qaeda.
But opponents of the war are now willing to retreat from Iraq, no matter what the consequences. Sunday’s New York Times editorial calling for a withdrawal had this extraordinarily candid passage: “Americans must be clear that Iraq, and the region around it, could be even bloodier and more chaotic after Americans leave. There could be reprisals against those who worked with American forces, further ethnic cleansing, even genocide. Potentially destabilizing refugee flows could hit Jordan and Syria. Iran and Turkey could be tempted to make power grabs. Perhaps most important, the invasion has created a new stronghold from which terrorist activity could proliferate.”
That is what the panicked Republicans are steering us toward. Unless and until they get a grip, President Bush must do all he can to resist them.