March 2, 2007

March 2, 2007 | Commentary on

Salvaging the war in Iraq

We should be grateful that Washington political battles usually do not result in any fatalities. Were it otherwise, casualty figures for the next two years could undoubtedly be significant. The real bloodshed, however, is left for the Iraqis to live with as politicians here maneuver and debate how fast American troops can return home. In all, it is a pretty depressing time for those of us who believe that, having gotten into Iraq, the United States now has a responsibility to see the mission through. 

How we define success of course will be another matter. Since the Sunni-Shi'ite violence erupted, we have come a long way from the days when the Bush administration talked about Iraq as a beacon of democracy in the Middle East. It may still become that, but for now our expectations for a successful outcome should be more modest and include three elements: Bringing the violence in Baghdad under control to give space to commerce and civilian life; establishing a self-sustaining Iraqi government; and training sufficient numbers of Iraqi policy and military to enable them to ensure stability and territorial integrity.

Of course, all that depends on whether President Bush's new plan for the 21,500-troop surge to secure Baghdad will work. It is not a foregone conclusion by any means. It is perfectly clear, however, that if politicians declare defeat in Washington and start forcing restrictions on the deployment of American troops or setting time tables for a pull out, failure will be guaranteed. 

These points were made forcefully Monday by Sen. Joseph Lieberman in the Wall Street Journal. Taking such a stand as a Democrat in the current political climate ought to earn the senator a badge of courage. "I appeal to my colleagues in Congress to step back and think carefully about what to do next. Instead of undermining Gen. [David] Petraeus before he has been in Iraq for even a month, let us give him and his troops the time and support they need to succeed," he writes. 

Equally pertinent is the fact eloquently pointed out by Mr. Lieberman that those who advocate withdrawal are refusing to think about the consequences: "Many of the worst errors in Iraq arose precisely because the Bush administration best-cased what would happen after Saddam was overthrown. Now many opponents of the war are making the very same best-case mistake -- assuming we can pull back in the midst of a critical battle with impunity, even arguing that our retreat will reduce terrorism and sectarian violence in Iraq." 

Yet, every congressional resolution under consideration by Democrats would in some way place restrictions on deployment in the form of restrictions on training, length of tours of duty, etc. Most bizarre of all is the notion of Sens. Carl Levin and Joseph Biden to propose a resolution that would undo the vote that authorized the president to go to war in the first place -- perhaps to give Democratic presidential hopefuls who voted for the war, like front-runner Sen. Hillary Clinton and Mr. Biden himself, a way to vote against it after they voted for it. 

Meanwhile in the House, Rep. John Murtha has overreached by proposing his own plan for ending the war and cut off funding, something very few Democrats and almost no Republicans would have the political stomach to endorse. 

The good news is that even though the House voted for a very watered-down resolution on the war, little else has happened. Taking on the White House directly at a time when the nation is militarily involved abroad is too risky a strategy. Even though the parallels with the Vietnam War -- as noted recently in this space -- are becoming ominous, the fact is that when Congress cut funding, then-President Nixon had already started withdrawing American troops from Vietnam. Everyone was looking for a way out. 

Today, the White House is neither ready to declare defeat nor reflect a sense of panic. And it shouldn't. Though some polls, like the one splashed Tuesday on the front-page by The Washington Post, suggest that most Americans favor a an unspecified deadline for withdrawal (53 percent, according to a Post/ABC poll), there is no political advantage in undercutting American troops deployed in Iraq. 

So, while Democrats flounder and Republicans find enough nerve to resist constitutional incursions on presidential authority, there may yet be a window of opportunity throughout this year to salvage Iraq.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in the Washington Times