President Bush says that by next summer, he will have cut the U.S. troop commitment in Iraq by 30,000. That will mean a troop presence in midsummer of 2008 of roughly 130,000 — or about the same level as in midsummer of 2006.
The White House says this represents the president's embrace of a recommendation from his field commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and that the drawdown signifies the success of the general's troop surge plan.
But if the general is right about the situation in Iraq, and about the crucial role played by the surge and these 30,000 troops, why does he think their essential contribution will be over by spring? Or even by next summer?
Everything that Petraeus and his pewter-haired partner, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, told Congress in two days of testimony this week pointed to the pivotal contribution of new tactics and the larger force they required.
If these amazing tales are true, and if they indeed can be transferred from the Sunni precincts of Anbar to the Shiite sectors that make up most of Iraq, why would the general and the president risk continued success by withdrawing those critical troops?
The simple answer is that they wouldn't. Not if they had any choice in the matter. But a choice is just what's missing here.
As Petraeus and other military leaders have all said — consistently, and for months — the surge cannot be sustained logistically past the spring of 2008. The Pentagon cannot extend battle tours any further and maintain its other commitments, including those made to the troops.
We have heard this from generals such as Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former secretary of state, as well as from the last two commanders of U.S. forces in the Middle East, Gen. John Abizaid and his successor, Admiral William Fallon. We have heard it from Petraeus himself.
If the U.S. had planned to occupy Iraq indefinitely, the Pentagon would have known it would need hundreds of thousands of troops to sustain the rotation. This would have meant the reactivation of the draft, sometime right after the terrorist attacks of 2001 or, surely, by late 2002.
That was when Congress and the country were most likely to buy the mortal danger scenario. It was also when Gen. Eric Shinseki was Army chief of staff, telling everyone who would listen that it would take several hundred thousand U.S. troops to control Iraq after deposing Saddam Hussein.
But at the time, most of the Pentagon brass did not want a draft, and surely the White House did not either. The potential political consequences were all too obvious to anyone who remembered the 1960s. So the U.S. invaded Iraq with the lean force idealized by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. And the rest is history.
Now we can see that the U.S. will be in Iraq beyond next summer, and perhaps well beyond the summer after that. But we can also say with certainty that the force levels will be smaller. That is not open to debate. The drawdown is already a fait accompli, waiting for its effective date.
So the hoopla surrounding this week's talk of drawdown may be defined as strictly political. It makes sense for the president and his chorus in Congress to present the drawdown as something other than necessity, in fact a kind of victory in itself. They know that it sounds better for the president to address the nation with the word withdrawal in the headline, rather than with one more stay-the-course speech.
On one level, this week's Petraeus-Crocker show on Capitol Hill was every bit the public relations triumph the White House was counting on all summer — presaged by weeks of leaks and media preparation. Early on, the president met with a circle of friendly commentators, waving before their eyes the amulet of Anbar. This once-restive province became the testing ground for Petraeus' strategy, which was to muscle up on troop strength and make deals with local Sunni militia leaders willing to turn against al-Qaida.
There followed a gush of favorable coverage in Human Events, The Weekly Standard, National Review, The Washington Times and other conservative venues.
That spread to more mainstream media and even beyond. Anbar became a watchword for the administration, and a touchstone for journalists and commentators everywhere. Even the Democratic candidates for president generally genuflected before the notion of progress in Anbar. Republicans in House and Senate invoked the name as though it were a miracle, or at least a miracle drug.
This sell-the-war scenario played itself out through the much-awaited Hill appearance of Crocker and Petraeus, who, by the end of two exhausting days, looked ready to take refuge in Baghdad. The initial reviews of their House performance, mostly admiring and positive, gave way to negativism in the Senate-side show.
In nearly 10 hours on the senators' grill, Petraeus grew ever more rigid and resigned. Here, even the Republicans were asking hard questions and squinting as they listened to the answers. By the end, the general had something like the thousand-yard stare of the post-combat foot soldier.
One can only imagine the conflicting thoughts and cross-pressures this man has experienced this week, and in this year and in this war. But that does not resolve, or excuse, the profound contradiction between his surge prescription and his drawdown proposal for the coming months.