No End in Sight

The front page story in yesterday’s Washington Post by Tom Ricks and Peter Baker is a sobering must-read. (“Tipping Point for War’s Supporters?”)

Don’t be fooled by the headline or the first few paragraphs. While it is true that stalwart Republicans such as John Warner have become more outspoken about the lack of progress in Iraq, and some in the GOP have mused openly about the need for a new approach, the consensus that emerges from the article is toward “a new phase” of the conflict, not an end to it. That is how former Pentagon official Dov Zakheim describes the current state of play. Zakheim dismisses the notion that the United States will leave any time soon, and it is his words – not Warner’s – that close out this important article. (Ricks, by the way, will be at Cato on Thursday to discuss the U.S. experience in Iraq. Visit the Cato web site for more details.)

That a solid majority of Americans want a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq must now be seen as irrelevant. Public and so-called elite opinion has diverged almost from the moment that the Bush administration launched the war in Iraq. In other words, the tipping point, if you want to call it that, occurred long ago. This has had no impact on the size of the U.S. military presence in the country, nor on the mission as a whole.

If you think this assessment too pessimistic, consider the table that appears below the Ricks/Baker story in the Post’s print edition. The piece compiled by the Post’s Dita Smith, with research assistance by Robert Thompson, documents the sliding target date for when U.S. troops might begin to be withdrawn from Iraq. The graphic begins by noting that Pentagon planners expected that the 150,000 troops would be cut to about 30,000 by the fall of 2003. But this was only the first of many misjudgments as to the costs and risks of this war. A progression of statements by senior civilian and military personnel since January 2005 shows how projections for troop cuts have consistently missed their mark. According to Gen. George Casey, security in Iraq might improve in 12 months time, which would allow for some troops reductions in the fall of 2007, but for now more troops might be needed.

That doesn’t sound like a change of course to me; and to the extent that it is, it is a change in the wrong direction.