Barring a miracle, the United States faces a catastrophic defeat in Iraq, with President Bush and both Republicans and Democrats in Congress sharing in the blame.
Bush's new counterinsurgency strategy has yet to be fully implemented, and yet the White House and Congress both are talking up a return to the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group — which is to say, the same strategy Bush abandoned earlier this year as a failure.
Instead of stationing U.S. troops in urban neighborhoods to prevent sectarian mayhem — as the U.S. commander, Gen. David Petraeus, is trying to do — the ISG policy calls for a return to secure bases, away from involvement in what surely will be a renewed civil war.
Failure to bring order and stability to Baghdad will discredit both the U.S. and the Iraqi government. Amid sectarian chaos, it will lead to new calls for a total withdrawal of U.S. troops and abandonment of the country to become a haven for Al Qaeda and pro-Iranian Shiite militias.
The miracle that's needed is dramatic evidence this summer that the Petraeus "surge" is working and swift movement toward Iraqi political reconciliation. But miracles rarely happen and patience in America is running out. Democrats are beating the drum for withdrawal and Republicans are growing shaky in their support for Bush's policies.
Those advocating "dusting off" the ISG report don't argue for it as a strategic retreat, but rather as a politically sustainable means of keeping U.S. troops in Iraq for the foreseeable future.
As Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., stated on the Senate floor on May 24, "the current surge of troops in Baghdad, which we all hope is successful, is not by itself a strategy for tomorrow. The Iraq Study Group report is a strategy for tomorrow.
"It would get the United States out of the combat business in Iraq and into the support, equipping and training business in a prompt and honorable way. It will reduce the number of troops in Iraq. Those that stay will be less in harm's way," he said.
Alexander is co-sponsoring, along with Sens. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., Bob Casey, D-Pa., Ken Salazar, D-Colo., Bob Bennett, R-Utah, and Judd Gregg, R-N.H., a resolution designed to declare the ISG recommendations official U.S. policy.
The presence of conservatives Gregg and Bennett among the co-sponsors indicates it may have the unspoken backing of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Minority Whip Trent Lott (Miss.).
Alexander contends that the ISG policy is not inconsistent with Petraeus' counterinsurgency surge — there is a one-sentence mention of a temporary troop surge in the ISG's December 2006 report — but advocacy of it now certainly undercuts Petraeus' efforts and signals that a U.S. pullback is in the offing.
The House and Senate voted by lopsided margins last week to continue funding the war — 80-14 in the Senate and 280-142 in the House — but it's significant that a majority of House Democrats voted "no," as did Democratic presidential candidates Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), Barack Obama (Ill.) and Chris Dodd (Conn.)
If Petraeus and the Iraqi government can't produce miracles by September, demands for withdrawal are likely to become irresistible, particularly as the 2008 elections draw near.
If the United States leaves Iraq in chaos, the blame will fall primarily on President Bush, who already is being branded as one of the worst presidents in American history for the Iraq misadventure.
Indeed, he went into the war on mistaken pretenses — that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction — and allowed Vice President Cheney, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and their "neoconservative" allies to convince him that taking over Iraq would be easy.
Far too few troops were committed to the struggle, the Pentagon and White House ignored advice from Middle East experts and Bush overestimated the willingness of the American people to stay with a difficult task. Bush bet his presidency on Iraq and it looks as though he has lost.
Bush believed that a victory in Iraq would undercut Islamic extremism in the world. Instead, his policy has fueled it — providing a rallying cry and a training ground for jihadists much as the Soviet Union once did in Afghanistan.
As retired CIA official Bruce Riedel wrote in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs, al- Qaida is resurgent in the world, battle-hardened and encouraged by experience in Iraq and now plotting terrorism in Europe, North Africa, India and the Middle East.
On the other hand, the Iraq experience does not inspire confidence in Democrats' ability to carry out foreign policy in a time of grave danger, either. Most of them agreed with Bush on the presence weapons of mass destruction and voted to authorize the war — then quickly backed off when the going got tough.
Hardly any Democrats joined Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in arguing that more troops were needed to achieve victory. Democratic policy almost from the beginning was: "get out," regardless of the consequences.
Now, despite the fact that Al Qaeda leaders have declared Iraq to be the central front in the jihadist war on America, Democrats want to abandon that struggle. They say they want to confront Al Qaeda in Afghanistan instead, but who's to believe they would stay the course there if it became difficult?
Riedel, in his Foreign Affairs article, argues that Iraq has become "more of a trap than an opportunity for the United States" and that "Al Qaeda and Iran both want Washington to remain bogged down in the quagmire" there. He recommends a "complete, orderly and phased troop withdrawal that allows the Iraqi government to take the credit for the pullout and so enhance its legitimacy."
After that, he said, "the objective should be to let the Iraqis settle their conflicts themselves," while the United States concentrates on combating Al Qaeda, primarily in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The problem with this argument is that Al Qaeda will interpret U.S. withdrawal from Iraq as another retreat, more evidence that the United States lacks the stomach for a long-term struggle. It was that conviction that led to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Riedel concluded that "a failure to adjust U.S. strategy would increase the risk that Al Qaeda will launch another 'raid' on the United States, this time perhaps with weapons of mass destruction.
"For the last several years, Al Qaeda's priority has been to bleed the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq. Striking on U.S. soil has been a lesser goal. If Al Qaeda survives, however, sooner or later it will attack the U.S. homeland again."
Is Al Qaeda more likely to hit America again if the U.S. stays the course in Iraq and defeats the jihadists — which it might do under the Petraeus strategy? Or, if the U.S. turns tail and retreats? With Bush discredited, it looks as though the United States will take the defeatist risk.
Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.
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