The Politics of U.S. Troop Levels in Iraq

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President Bush has committed additional U.S. troops to combat the surge in sectarian violence in Baghdad, just months after the administration suggested that the U.S. could begin lowering troop levels in Iraq. Slate political correspondent John Dickerson talks with Alex Chadwick about the politics of troop deployment.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

NOAH ADAMS, host:

And I'm Noah Adams.

In a few minutes, a break from the news in the Middle East and a visit with ‘80s rocker Joan Jett. That's coming up.

CHADWICK: But first to Capitol Hill where Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki spoke today before a joint session of Congress. In the speech he said the war on terror will never be won if Iraqi democracy fails.

Prime Minister NOURI AL-MALIKI (Iraq): (Through translator) It is your duty and our duty to defeat this terror. Iraq is the frontline in this struggle and history will prove that the sacrifices of Iraqis, for freedom, will not be in vain. Iraqis are your allies in the war on terror.

(Soundbite of applause)

CHADWICK: Prime Minister al-Maliki's visit to Washington was designed to show American-Iraqi unity, but it's come amid rising tensions that have highlighted the strains in the relationship. Joining us is John Dickerson. He's chief political correspondent for the online magazine Slate, and a regular guest on DAY TO DAY. John, welcome back.

Mr. JOHN DICKERSON (Chief political correspondent, Slate): Hi, thanks again for having me.

CHADWICK: The fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, that was not going on when this visit was planned. It certainly complicated matters.

Mr. DICKERSON: That's exactly right. And Prime Minister Maliki's own remarks about that fighting and his siding, essentially, with the Iranian-Hezbollah position have complicated things even further. The speech today, though, was very different, it was almost as if it was written by the administration.

It was perfectly on message about the link between Iraq and the war on terror. So he was back on message today, but there are still lots of tensions in the relationship in terms of Iraq's place in the broader Middle East and in the context of this violence we're seeing in Lebanon.

CHADWICK: Some Congressional Democrats yesterday, were asking the House Speaker Dennis Hastert to actually rescind the invitation to Prime Minister Maliki to give this speech, because of his comments about Israel. Mr. Hastert refused. How about that fight? Is it more about domestic or foreign politics?

Mr. DICKERSON: It's all about domestic politics. Democrats have seen the White House and Republicans use national security issues to beat them up for the last several years, since 9/11, and they see an opportunity here to put the White House and Republicans in a box.

They drew down their remarks a little bit before today, realizing that their effort to score political points looked a little cheap in the face of somebody who's coming to speak to Congress and who is - even if he holds a different position from the United States on the question of Israel and Hezbollah - is nevertheless risking his life in Iraq and that they owed him a certain amount of respect.

CHADWICK: You used that term draw down - you mean the Democrats stepping down from their political position - but that's the term that has been applied to a possible reduction of U.S. troops in Iraq by the end of this year. We had a lot of comment about that earlier in this year from senior administration people and political people. It doesn't look now, as though that draw down is going to begin occurring as soon as people hoped, maybe not even by the end of the year. I wonder what you are hearing about the political response to that prospect.

Mr. DICKERSON: Well, you're exactly right. It's extraordinary what's changed in the last six weeks. The president made his surprise visit to Iraq six weeks ago. The Iraqi government was at that point fully-formed. Zwaheri(ph) was killed. Zarqawi - excuse me - was killed. There was a sense that perhaps the momentum was moving towards a position where U.S. troops could start drawing down in the fall.

Now, insiders and behind-the-scenes, everybody pretty much assumes that troops are not coming home. They're moving more troops, in fact, into Baghdad. The security situation is quite grave. And it seems to me, that to talk in terms of bringing U.S. troops home any time soon, has pretty much ended.

CHADWICK: Let me just quote from the Washington Post today, writing about the remarks from President Bush yesterday: President Bush said he will send more U.S. forces and equipment to Baghdad as part of a fresh strategy to put down sectarian violence, abandoning six-week-old operation that failed to pacify the strife-torn Iraqi capital. And, opening quote, what aides - White House aides - called an unexpected new phase of the war. If I held political office now, I can hardly imagine a more chilling term than unexpected new phase of the war.

Mr. DICKERSON: That's exactly right. The administration has been saying let's wait for the political progress here and then we'll see security progress. Well, there's been political progress and the first effort to fix the security problem has now failed. And it now really looks open-ended and very ugly in Iraq.

CHADWICK: Analysis and opinion from John Dickerson. He's chief political correspondent for the online magazine Slate. John, thank you again.

Mr. DICKERSON: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: And there's more coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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