It is now apparent that President Bush will have his troop buildup in Baghdad in full, and with it, one more chance to help the government of Nouri al-Maliki restore order in the Iraqi capital.
The question now is not whether more U.S. troops will be committed but whether they will accomplish what most Americans want: an expedited disengagement.
This can work in two ways. One is for the troop surge and the new security plan to prove successful — and visibly so — within the next few months. This would enable the Bush administration to declare a kind of victory (for its latest strategy, if not for the war itself) and to begin drawing down the troop levels soon.
This would not please those who want the U.S. to remain in Iraq and play an outsized role in the region. But it would ease the fears of Republicans who see the elections of 2008 going the way of 2006.
The surge could open a window of escape from Iraq even without forcing the warring factions there to make a permanent peace. An uneasy truce lasting more than a few weeks might well be sufficient. As a reference point, the U.S. might use the standard of the British, who now seem chipper enough about troubled southern Iraq to begin drawing down their forces there.
Alternatively, the surge could become an exit strategy by failing outright. If it's really a flop, and violence and chaos continue, what option will the White House have?
The Bush administration has placed its full faith and credit in its new tactics and higher troop levels. Absent conspicuous success, the escalation option will have run its course. The other option is de-escalation.
Truth be told, the president is already writing an overdraft on what's left of his political capital just by pressing for the current buildup. Polls show most Americans disapprove. Most of Congress has gone on record in opposition: 56 of the 100 senators voted to disapprove it, as did virtually the same majority of the House (56.7 percent). A handful of Republicans joined in this majority in both chambers.
As we all know, 56 percent of Congress is not enough to block the surge. The Senate needed 60 votes to shut off a Republican filibuster, so officially the resolution disapproving the buildup never made it to the floor.
Senate Democrats now speak of rescinding the 2002 vote that authorized the use of force against Iraq. But its chance of effectiveness is no greater than any other maneuver requiring 60 votes to prevent a filibuster. And it's not clear whether the White House would respect it if passed.
For their part, House Democrats talked of a new strategy that would require certain levels of training and more equipment for any additional troops slated for deployment to Iraq. The idea was to make it impossible, in effect, to send any more. But support for this idea began to crumble almost as soon as it became public.
The author of the train-and-equip gambit, Rep. John Murtha (D-PA), knows how to write policy changes into a military-spending bill. As chairman of the Subcommittee on Defense for the House Appropriations Committee, he has done it many times. But his fine skill in that venue is betrayed by his blunderbuss antics on the broader political stage.
Case in point: Murtha trotted out his idea on the anti-war Web site of MoveOn.org — supplying Republicans with just the angle and opening they needed. His plan, immediately dubbed the "slow bleed" strategy, was effectively cast as a cutoff of support for troops in mid-battle. Democrats had been winning the public opinion battle — as long as the surge was seen as escalating the war. Calling the same troops "reinforcements" forced an instant, critical shift.
That shift may well have frozen some of the dozens of Republicans who had been expected to oppose the president in the Feb. 16 vote on the surge. In the end, with the words "slow bleed" in the air, only 17 did. The same chill will settle on many of their Democratic counterparts if the subject shifts to funding the troops. Consider the three new Democratic members from Indiana, the four from Pennsylvania, the half dozen from the South and the 10 from west of the Mississippi: Most were elected on doubts about the war, and all voted against the surge. But watch what happens in their districts if the issue becomes reduced support for troops in the field.
That leaves Democrats in the House with no visible strategy for frustrating the president's plan in the short run — just as Democrats in the Senate are hamstrung by their chamber's 60-vote rule.
So the surge will go forward. Those who want U.S. involvement to end as soon as possible must now wish for events in Iraq to render a clear verdict, pro or con. If the surge works well, the phased withdrawal so many Democrats demand (and for which so many Republicans wish) can still begin this year. If the surge fails utterly, withdrawal becomes inevitable.