An Iraq strategy for the rest of President Bush’s term seems to be emerging from consultations between the White House and commanding Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. The public will get a fuller look at that strategy when the two return to Washington to testify before Congress April 8 and 9.
Although the Bush administration insists the surge worked — at the cost of 2007 being the deadliest year of the war for U.S. troops — the military progress was not matched by political progress and there has been no talk of continuing, let alone doubling down on, the surge.
Instead, the five extra brigades that made up the surge are to be withdrawn by July, reducing the numbers of U.S. troops to pre-surge levels of about 140,000 troops and 15 combat brigades.
Then there will come — the administration is still searching for the right word — a plateau, a pause, a period of consolidation and evaluation. In other words, the administration will quit pulling troops out until the president’s advisers see what happens.
What happens next may be determined by two elections — ours and the Iraqis’.
The Bush administration likely will stick with the existing troop levels. The withdrawal of the five brigades constitutes something of a nod to public opinion, and the probable Republican nominee, John McCain, favors a vigorous prosecution of the war.
And we may not be able to withdraw more troops. In Iraq’s seemingly endless series of unpleasant surprises, the Shiite-run and U.S.-backed Iraqi government is doing battle with Shiite criminal gangs in the south and renegade Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia near Baghdad seems to be preparing for some kind of confrontation.
Moreover, the Iraqi regional elections are in October, and it is essential to our political strategy that these come off peacefully and efficiently.
The upshot is that the Iraqi problem will be handed intact to the next president. If it’s McCain, he will have to summon the popular will to keep on fighting the war on the promise he will do it better. Barack Obama or Hillary Rodham Clinton will get to try a wildly optimistic plan for staged withdrawals and redeployment. Either way, the problem will still be there.