Politics & Policy

Operation ‘Return on Success’

In a speech to the nation Thursday night, President Bush adopted the recommendations of Gen. David Petraeus for a gradual drawdown of the surge in Iraq.

He clearly and persuasively explained the sources of the progress the surge has made so far, as well as America’s interest in success in Iraq. At bottom, an ally of the United States is fighting for its survival. It needs our aid in defeating Islamic extremists and checking the hegemonic ambitions of its neighbor Iran, a sworn enemy of the United States.

President Bush invoked the scheduled drawdown that Petraeus laid out in his recent congressional testimony — a reduction of 5,700 troops by Christmas, and of five brigades (from 20 to 15) by July — and endorsed the general’s proposal that further reductions not be considered until March. He stipulated that his decisions on troop levels will be conditions-based. “I will ensure that our commanders on the ground have the troops and flexibility they need to defeat the enemy,” he said, calling his guiding principle “return on success.”

Bush tried to reach out near the end of his remarks, saying that this kind of withdrawal “makes it possible, for the first time in years, for people who have been on opposite sides of this difficult debate to come together.” Would that it were so. After the speech, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the president had demonstrated “that he is trying to run out the clock on his failed strategy and leave the hard decisions to the next president.” This is a poisonous charge — Reid asserts that Bush is cynically spending blood and treasure simply to hand off a losing war to his successor. But such is the nature of the opposition Bush is saddled with, and he will never win it over.

Democrats are furious that, if the proposed surge drawdown happens on the proposed schedule, we will still have 130,000 troops in Iraq next July. This merely returns us to the status quo ante, they say. But they ignore conditions in Iraq, which have changed because of the surge. It is one thing to have 130,000 troops in a country torn by civil war and succumbing, in some areas, to al Qaeda. It is quite another to have 130,000 troops in a country with improving security and al Qaeda on the run.

Democrats — and some Republicans — say what we need is a change of mission. Here too they are ignoring conditions on the ground. When a strategy is failing, it makes sense to call for a new one (as Democrats effectively did in 2006 — although the surge obviously wasn’t what they had in mind). But when a strategy is working, to call for a new one is perverse. Petraeus’s testimony made it clear — as did the most recent National Intelligence Estimate — that prematurely shifting away from a counterinsurgency mission will give back the gains we’ve made.

Bush’s speech last night envisioned Iraq in a long-term relationship with the United States, a “political, economic, and security engagement that extends beyond my presidency.” If that vision is realized, we will have taken Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and replaced it with a stable ally — an undeniable benefit to the United States. The path there is still fraught with peril, but Bush finally has in place a strategy with a good chance of success and the right commander to carry it out. That speaks more loudly than any speech.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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