David Ignatius airs one:
Defense Secretary Robert Gates appears to recognize what's necessary, politically and strategically. He is said to favor an announcement by September that the United States will withdraw some troops from Iraq before year-end as a sign that it is committed to a "post-surge" redeployment. The opportunity for a modest drawdown will arise this fall, when two battalions, several thousand troops at most, are scheduled to rotate out of Iraq. One of those is a Marine battalion in Anbar province, where the administration has been touting U.S. success. A good way to underline the gains in Anbar would be to reduce U.S. troop levels there.
Another chance for compromise is the United Nations authorization for the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, which must be renewed this year. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki wants a plan to reduce the number of American troops in his country as much as any member of Congress does. Here's the real opportunity for "timelines" on withdrawal -- ones jointly negotiated by U.S. and Iraqi diplomats rather than imposed by Congress. In a perverse sense, that's the greatest gift America can bestow on the Iraqi government -- to engineer the joint "liberation" of Iraq from U.S. occupation, but "slowly, slowly," as the Arabs like to say.
Some thing like this will happen next year regardless. I'm not sure pulling out of areas where we have had success makes a lot of sense, though. In many ways, it seems smarter to stay in those areas where we have been able to gain traction with local power-brokers against insurgents or, in Sunni areas, pesky Qaeda-ites. But these are pragmatic decisions that will accompany withdrawal, and those decisions should be made with maximum input from commanders on the ground. The key direction is withdrawal. Making a clear declaration that we are out if there seems to me vital to shift the dynamic in Iraq to get the political decisions their dependency is impeding.
I think our withdrawal should facilitate soft partition, devolved local "government" of various sectarian forms, and tactical alliances between local leaders and US troops, combined with carefully vetted training of Iraqi troops. But I see no real prospect of reconstructing a unitary nation-state in the foreseeable future. If the process of withdrawal is clear and irreversible, then much can surely be done creatively with the process.