The Battle Over Iraq Policy
The wrangling surrounding the $649 billion Defense Authorization Bill before the Senate this week is at heart debate about one key point: Is the course in Iraq working, or does it need to be changed? The answer to the question is increasingly a foregone conclusion on Capitol Hill.
Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services committee, framed the debate in comments Tuesday as he helped shepherd an amendment, co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Jim Webb, that would require U.S. troops to spend as much time on the home front as they spend at war. The amendment is an effort to give troops strained by multiple deployments a much-needed break, explained Webb. But it would also curtail the administration's ability to sustain the current "surge" troop level in Iraq.
Shortly afterwards, Republican Sen. John McCain took the floor to argue for more time for troops in Iraq to do their work. In the meantime, he added, "I would hope we could set the whole issue of Iraq aside," said McCain. "Unfortunately, I think that's not going to happen."
Indeed, there was little chance of that. The amendments brought to the floor this week are part of a strategy by Democrats to set the stage for a military drawdown in Iraq where, they say, the so-called surge has been slow to show results and has pushed the U.S. military to a breaking point.
They are not alone in this assessment. "More and more Republicans have stopped backing the president and have started looking for ways to work with us," said Sen. Joseph Biden, the Delaware Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
That ratchets up pressure on the White House, especially as debate comes in advance of a congressionally-mandated interim report on progress toward "benchmarks" that President Bush must submit before Sunday, July 15. These benchmarks include training of security forces and passage of a law that would cement how oil revenues would be distributed among warring Sunnis and Shiites.
Military analysts in Baghdad have submitted a 30-page assessment, which the White House will then turn into its report to Congress. A senior U.S. military official said the report will present "a mixed bag, if it goes forward as we presented it." From the perspective of military planners in Iraq, he said, the report "is just another assessment" in advance of a much-anticipated September report to Congress by Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.
He added that "people may be surprised, because it's not all failures." In Baghdad, military officials say that they have seen some downward trends in the past couple of months in car bombs and violence against the civilian population. "Attacks against us are up, but when you're looking at what we're trying to do, that's a positive signyou cannot have them attacking the civilian population," said the senior military official. There are signs, he added, that the government is struggling to capitalize on security gains that have just begun to take hold since the last of the troops involved in the "surge" arrived on the ground June 15. "To say Iraqis aren't doing their partthat broad brushstroke is about 1,000 miles wide," he said.
But it is clear, say Senate Democrats and a growing chorus of Republicans, that something has to change. Like a gallon of milk, Iraq has a "sell by" date, said Biden. "If we don't change policy in a radical way in this calendar year," he added, the result could be "Saigon revisitedwe will be lifting American personnel off the roofs of buildings in the Green Zone."
Regardless of what happens on Capitol Hill this week, the military will be unable to sustain "surge" level forces beyond next spring, according to senior Pentagon officials. As of May, they project, the Army has to start drawing down the number of brigades for physical reasons. That drawdown may bring troops to pre-surge levels of 120,000, or lower. The stress on the forces is not helped by news this week that the U.S. Army has failed to meet its recruiting goals for June by about 15 percent.