As the situation in Iraq has unraveled over the past few months, politicians on both sides of the aisle have pinned their hopes on the Iraq Study Group. After months of waiting, and a few leaks to the press, we now know that this august body of five Republicans and five Democrats, led by long-time Washington insiders James Baker and Lee Hamilton, has recommended a modest change in course in Iraq, a gradual pullback of the 15 combat brigades (some 70,000 troops) now in that country.
The timing of this withdrawal is undetermined; the president and military commanders will retain enormous latitude as to when, and even whether, the withdrawals will take place. And even if the Bush administration executed the commission's recommendations within the next year or so, a sizeable U.S. force, perhaps 70,000 or more U.S. military personnel, would remain in Iraq indefinitely. That open-ended commitment is unacceptable.
There are no good options in Iraq, but some are less bad than others. The commission wisely rejected the least advisable strategy: a dramatic increase in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq. This is the approach favored by Sen. John McCain and the editors of The Weekly Standard, but it enjoys precious little support within the country at large.
And for good reason. As General John Abizaid explained to Sen. McCain, "more American forces prevent...the Iraqis from taking more responsibility for their own future."
Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel has been similarly dismissive of the call for more troops. "The time for more U.S. troops in Iraq has passed," Hagel wrote recently in the Washington Post. "We do not have more troops to send and, even if we did, they would not bring a resolution to Iraq. Militaries are built to fight and win wars, not bind together failing nations."
Sending more troops to Iraq is strategically unsound, and politically unattractive, but the ISG's conditions-based withdrawal of combat troops is the de facto equivalent of stay the course. The Bush administration has wanted to draw down troops for over three years now, conditions permitting. But the conditions have not been met. Indeed the security situation has grown worse, and the troop levels have, therefore, remained largely unchanged.
The commission managed to achieve a consensus among its ten members by sticking to the middle of the road, but the nation needs more than a minor course correction. By explicitly rejecting a timeline – any timeline – for the withdrawal of troops, the commission has put itself at odds with nearly 60 percent of Americans. The advocates of a real change of course in Iraq must now seize the opportunity to fashion a bipartisan consensus to end the U.S. presence there.
The incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, is likely to assume this role. Levin and Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island put forward a resolution in June calling for U.S. troops to begin pulling out of Iraq by the end of 2006. 39 senators supported it. Still more are likely to support it in the 110th Congress.
Ohio's Sherrod Brown and Vermont's Bernie Sanders voted against the original Iraq war resolution in the House in 2002, and both have been highly critical of the ongoing occupation. Other Democrats, including Virginia's James Webb, Minnesota's Amy Klobuchar, and Missouri's Claire McCaskill, are replacing senators who voted against Levin's resolution, and all have spoken of the need to draw down the U.S. presence in Iraq.
But there is potential support for withdrawal among Republicans as well. In his recent Washington Post piece, Nebraska Senator Hagel stated categorically "The United States must begin planning for a phased troop withdrawal from Iraq."
Other veteran Republicans, including Richard Lugar of Indiana, the outgoing chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Virginia's John Warner, and South Carolina's Lindsay Graham have all voiced their concerns about an open-ended military commitment in Iraq.
An expeditious withdrawal would allow the United States to begin to rebuild its tattered image abroad. It would also free up political, diplomatic and military resources for use against al-Qaeda and other like-minded anti-American terrorist groups. Withdrawal carries risks, including the danger that the civil war in Iraq could grow more violent, or even spread beyond the country's borders, but the alternative – an indefinite commitment that saps American strength and undermines American security – is worse.
The ISG refused to make the case for ending this war. If the conflict drags on, and the costs in blood and treasure continue to mount, history will look back on their work as a lost opportunity.