The Iraq Endgame

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Rich Lowry reports that "an influential Republican strategist" tells him that "if Iraq looks the way it does now in September, Bush will lose about 25 Senate Republicans on a bill with some sort of timetable for withdrawal." Meanwhile, via Rod Dreher comes this (possibly dubious, obviously) nugget about the President's mindset:

Friends of his from Texas were shocked recently to find him nearly wild-eyed, thumping himself on the chest three times while he repeated "I am the president!" He also made it clear he was setting Iraq up so his successor could not get out of "our country's destiny."


For some time now, George W. Bush's determination not to give an inch on Iraq has made it ever more likely that his successor will take office with a large American force still deployed in that country - which has in turn made it ever more likely that we'll still be occupying Mesopotamia, in some sense at least, deep into a Clinton or an Obama Presidency. No matter what they're saying about withdrawal now, I suspect that if either of the main Democratic contenders inherits a substantial occupation, they'll sustain it longer than anyone suspects - out of inertia, out of fear of the alternatives, out of hope that a corner will get turned and they can claim the credit, and for a host of other reasons as well. (Many of these same forces, you'll recall, kept America in Vietnam for seven long years after Nixon was elected promising to end the war.)

But, but, it's increasingly possible that Bush's intransigence, which until now has worked to increase the likelihood of the U.S. staying in Iraq for the long term, may soon begin to have the opposite effect. If the President cuts a deal this autumn in which the U.S. presence is gradually decreased over the next year, leaving, say, 80,000 troops in Iraq when his successor takes over, then I wouldn't be surprised to see a President Clinton or Obama not only maintaining those levels but ordering another "surge" in the summer of '09, as part of a renewed attempt to stabilize the country. But if Bush decides to fight for a permanent extension of the kind of stepped-up deployments that are being quietly implemented at the moment, then he'll be courting large-scale Republican defections in the House and Senate (I don't share Matt's belief that GOP lawmakers will never stop supporting the President) and a timetable for withdrawal that's largely written by Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi and passed over his veto. Which in turn could mean a retreat from Iraq that happens all of sudden instead of in increments, and largely ends the occupation before his successor takes office.

I don't think this scenario is all that likely: If a timetable passes over Bush's veto, it'll probably still be a cautiously bipartisan, "cut the troop levels in half over the next year" package that leaves the next Administration knee-deep in Iraq. But a more drastic measure is at least a possibility, and the only one I can see that's likely to bring the Iraq War to a semi-complete end any time soon. Which is why the "in it to win it" side of the debate might have a vested interest, paradoxically, in having the President accept a compromise (like this one) with Congress come September, while the "get out now" crowd might want to root for him to dig in and refuse to budge an inch.

U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Andy Dunaway used under a Creative Commons license.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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