Is This How the Iraq War Ends?

U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Stephen Wherry patrols near Fallujah, Iraq. i i

U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Stephen Wherry from Rockwell, Texas, patrols near Fallujah, Iraq, May 12, 2007. Joe Raedle/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Joe Raedle/Getty Images
U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Stephen Wherry patrols near Fallujah, Iraq.

U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Stephen Wherry from Rockwell, Texas, patrols near Fallujah, Iraq, May 12, 2007.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

This is how the war in Iraq will end: Not with a sudden vote in Congress or a new president in the White House, but with a gradual process of disengagement. That process will begin this fall, but it will likely last into the next administration.

Disengagement will be driven not only by anti-war sentiment on the left, but by misgivings among conservatives. And it will be led, in critical ways, by the judgments of key commanders in the field.

Looking back on the last five months, it was never realistic to expect the Democrats' election triumph in November 2006 to reverse U.S. war policy in Iraq by itself.

Lacking the numbers to override a presidential veto — and with next to no help from the minority Republicans — the Democrats had to decide whether to let the war funding lapse entirely. They were loath to do this, unwilling to be seen as weakening U.S. forces in the field.

So the new majority party wound up approving four more months of emergency funding through September.

All this was predictable, and widely predicted, from the moment the new Congress took its oath in January.

But as President Bush has been winning this round — temporary funding with no timetable for withdrawal — something else has been happening. Over these same five months, the ground beneath the Iraq issue has shifted. A kind of unspoken consensus has begun to emerge about what must come next.

You can see the change in the president himself. When he got his way on the funding, he signed the document quietly at Camp David with little show of celebration. The mood of relief was darkened by the realization that another emergency funding measure must be passed before October, along with an equally contentious overall appropriation for the rest of the Department of Defense.

These new hurdles will spring up almost immediately. Congress must begin surmounting them in the short weeks of work between the Memorial Day and Fourth of July breaks. Thereafter, there will be just four weeks of session before the August recess and four more in September.

September is often the busiest month of the year on Capitol Hill, as the spending process rushes toward the start of the new fiscal year on October 1. But this year, that urgency will be all the keener because the Bush Administration has allowed September to become an informal deadline for judging the recent troop build-up.

U.S. Commander David Petraeus, on whom the president and his party are leaning heavily, says September will be a good point for assessing progress. And progress there had better be, or the ranks of Republicans straining against public opinion may give way.

In the meantime, we have May becoming one of the two deadliest months for U.S. service personnel in the past two years. The president himself predicts "a bloody summer" in Baghdad. And on the political front, we watch the Iraqi parliament going home for the hottest months of summer without finishing the oil revenue law and other crucial agenda items.

Of course, it would be even more discouraging if the Iraqi parliament stayed and voted to urge a U.S. withdrawal. At a single stroke, that would undercut the rationale for the entire mission. Given the plausibility of this happening, the Bush administration may prefer that the Iraqi parliament take the summer off.

Other signs of change are in the air, some great and some small. President Bush has just bid goodbye to his last best ally on the war, British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The Brits have added a footnote by deciding their Prince Harry will not deploy with his unit to Iraq (too likely to make his unit a target for terrorists).

In recent days, a freshet of interest in the Iraq Study Group has swept over official Washington. The ISG, also known as the Baker-Hamilton commission, had called for new thinking in late 2006. At the time, the White House was notably cool. But six months later, in the new moment, the White House this week allowed the formal talks with Iran (the first public talks at the ambassador level since 1979) that Baker-Hamilton recommended.

Three-fourths of the American public now believes the war is going badly, according to the CBS — New York Times poll. Dissatisfaction over the war is a major reason why 72 percent of Americans now say the country is on the wrong track, a record high for this poll.

That sentiment fueled recent efforts in Congress to circumscribe the U.S. commitment in Iraq. But, again, the Democrats were pinioned by the countervailing sense of obligation to the troops on the ground. Some of this same dilemma is audible in interviews with the troops themselves, and with those families mourning recent losses on Memorial Day.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has said he expects a new direction for U.S. policy in Iraq this fall, a new direction led by the president himself. McConnell, perhaps the shrewdest vote counter in the chamber, says, "The handwriting is on the wall."

Americans will support their troops for as long as need be; but a war strategy they see as failed is another story.

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