Nothing in the Iraq-war debate is quite as unimpressive as the proposals of Republicans seeking middle ground. But Virginia senator John Warner has set a new standard for lack of seriousness. He is predictably garnering press coverage that makes him sound like George Marshall and Metternich all rolled into one, for a proposal that is laughable on its own terms.
Warner wants to pull out 5,000 troops by Christmas, on the theory that this will send a “signal” to the Iraqi government and to the region that we aren’t going to stay indefinitely. He argues that Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki will be likelier to perform if we make a gesture toward leaving, as if Maliki were fated to be ineffective with 160,000 U.S. troops in country but might bridge the country’s sectarian divides and guide contentious legislation to passage if we went down to 155,000. Warner maintains that the withdrawal would also “say to the bordering nations . . . why don’t you come forward with your ideas, if you’ve got a better one, and try and help the United States of America resolve this problem?” So we are supposed to believe that Syria and Iran will foment chaos in Iraq when we have 160,000 troops, but when we are at 155,000 they will decide it is in their interest to have a stable democracy allied to the United States next door? This is disgraceful nonsense.
Of course, no one in Iraq or the region needs any reminder that we might pull out. Responsible Iraqis and our allies in the region are already terrified that we will leave too soon. As for Maliki, he is all too aware that we are unhappy with his performance and that prominent American politicians are calling for his ouster. Warner’s proposed “signal” represents a return to the discredited Don Rumsfeld/Gen. George Casey theory of the war: that if we only do less to secure the country, the Iraqis will feel compelled to reconcile politically. We tried this, and it led to a steady slide in both security and political conditions.
Nothing good will happen in Iraq until we have a better handle on security, and — as the surge has shown — this is possible only with American troops rigorously pushing back against al Qaeda and other sectarian killers. Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander in an area south of Baghdad, said that reducing troops this year would be a “giant step backwards.” “In my battlespace,” he explained, “I need the forces” until a handover to capable Iraqi forces is possible — and, obviously, “that’s not going to happen between now and Christmas.” Lynch predicted what the enemy would do if we did pull back: “He’d start building the bombs again, he’d start attacking the locals again, and he’d start exporting that violence back into Baghdad.” The most recent National Intelligence Estimate said much the same thing. Which makes us wonder how Warner can call for any sort of drawdown now, and at the same time say, “Of course, I’m concerned that we not lose the gains that our brave troops, with life and limb, have achieved so far.”
We understand Warner’s impulse to pressure Maliki, but American politicians need to realize that Iraq’s political difficulties go beyond just one man. The country has been riven by decades of tyranny and civil war. Even in the best of circumstances, and with inspired leadership at the top, reconciliation would take time. Iraq is also burdened — thanks to us — with a flawed electoral system that is based on proportional representation rather than district elections (for a fuller explanation, see Michael Rubin here), and a government structure that gives the prime minister extremely limited powers. Maliki may well fall, and deserve to fall, but these deeper flaws will need addressing even with a new government.
Warner’s proposal is being portrayed as a political blow to the White House. But we see it as an encouraging sign politically. Six months ago, it seemed possible that a substantial number of Republican senators would break with the White House and insist on a timetable for withdrawal. Instead, here is John Warner merely suggesting a minor drawdown, and saying that he opposes a mandated timetable for withdrawal and that it is up to the president and his generals ultimately to decide what to do. If wobbly Republicans adopt a similar posture, President Bush will be able to continue with the surge.
As he should. The lack of seriousness of Warner’s latest foray is no accident — there is no clever middle way on waging the war in Iraq. We either continue to pursue a strategy that has brought progress on the ground, or we declare defeat and come home. No Republican senator can find a happy medium between those two options, however adoring his press coverage.