Last week's briefings for the press by US civilian and military officials in
Baghdad were uniformly upbeat, cautious and predictable.
The first half of the message was straightforward: "Don't judge too early. Give
the 'surge' a chance." One division commander said all he needed was another
The second half, anticipating the day when the US administration
will finally have to give Congress and the public a status report - however
many times it may be rescheduled - was more speculative. The scenario suggested
that the numerous, small military "successes" of the new strategy would put so
much pressure on the Baghdad government that it would finally push through the
necessary political accommodations needed to fulfill the administration's
vision of an Arab democracy aglow in the heart of the Middle East.
But is this realistic? After all, it seems that every government, international
organization, and private civic entity that has in any way been involved in
Iraq over the past 52 months has come away burned by the experience, not
burnished. And the conflagration shows no sign of ending, despite the US
administration's attempts to find diamonds in the rough in Iraq.
War in Congress
Meanwhile, in Washington, Congress is afire with its own battles. For the
second time in a week, the Senate failed to end debate on an Iraq war-related
amendment to the 2008 Defense Authorization legislation. With that, Majority
Leader Harry Reid pulled the measure from consideration until after the August
recess. Reid's action shifted the congressional struggle over the Iraq war back
to the House of Representatives, where, under different procedural rules,
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer is ready to move the strategy forward.
The first and most stringent bill that the House is to take up this week, in
terms of mandatory timelines, is the Iraq Redeployment and Reconstruction Act
co-sponsored by Democrats Mike Thomson, Doris Matsui, George Miller and John
Murtha. This legislation would give the president just 30 days from enactment
into law to begin drawing US forces out of Iraq.
Another expected effort would extend indefinitely the current ban on spending
any appropriated funds for permanent bases in Iraq for US troops or to
"exercise United States control of the oil resources of Iraq". Such a ban is
part of the Fiscal Year 2007 Defense Appropriations Act, but is in effect only
for that fiscal year. Legislation to be introduced next week by Democratic
Congresswoman Barbara Lee would make the ban permanent.
The House may also debate and vote on a new version of Democratic Senator Jim
Webb's proposed amendment, defeated by four votes in the first Senate cloture
test last week. The legislation, expected to be offered as a stand-alone bill,
reportedly will require the Pentagon to observe a minimum "dwell time" at home
for war veterans before they can be redeployed into combat zones. The Webb
amendment included a provision allowing the president to waive the requirement
for "national-security reasons", a provision that will either be narrowed or
The White House, if concerned, is publicly holding to the same position: the
president is commander-in-chief and only he can run the war. But there is a
correlation of forces, to use a familiar Cold War phrase, that is becoming
irresistible. The number of Republicans in the Senate who have called for a
strategy change is steadily growing and will soon provide the needed votes for
cloture. Already Senators Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, Chuck Hagel and Gordon
Smith have voted against President George W Bush's position. Richard Lugar,
George Voinovich, John Warner, and John Sununu have warned the White House that
political time in Washington - and thus military time in Baghdad - is running
out and will soon expire.
Several senior military leaders seem to understand this connection better than
the political ruling class. There are plans, detailed ones, for withdrawing.
But no one at the Pentagon will own up to this on the record because they do
not want their name suddenly appearing on the list of pending retirements.
The sensitivity of this topic in political circles was made clear when the
Defense Department's Under Secretary for Policy Eric Edelman in effect accused
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of giving aid and comfort to the enemy by merely
asking about withdrawal plans. "Premature and public discussion of the
withdrawal of US forces from Iraq reinforces enemy propaganda," the Pentagon
official responded to the senator's query.
If the Pentagon uses such a tone when responding to a query from a member of
the Senate Armed Services Committee, the military rank-and-file can easily
imagine the letter they would get for talking to the press.
Since the beginning of July, another force seems to be gaining strength: the
urban press. This might come as a shock to many in Washington and New York who
have been railing against the coverage of the Washington Post and the New York
Times. But a July 15 informal survey of mid-size urban newspapers by the trade
publication Editor and Publisher concludes that more and more of these media
outlets (print and Internet) are calling for the start to the process of
withdrawing. Among those cited by the trade publication are the Philadelphia
Inquirer, Detroit Free Press, Wichita Kansas Eagle, Boston Globe, and
Ghost of Vietnam
Last, like the spirit of the unburied dead condemned to roam the earth, the
ghost of Vietnam haunts the entire Iraq debate. The ghost of Vietnam is clearly
on display in Congress, but also in the military where, albeit largely
unconscious and psychological, it still drives the military's can-do attitude
regardless of the events on the ground.
This contradiction from the Vietnam era, between political reluctance and
military overcompensation, is illustrated by the famous exchange between an
American and a North Vietnamese colonel. It took place at the conclusion of the
1973 Paris peace talks that saw the final withdrawal of US combat forces from
South Vietnam. The American asserted that the United States never lost a
significant military encounter of the Vietnam War. The North Vietnamese colonel
agreed, but then noted that his side won the more important political war.
Two years later, North Vietnam's victory became clear: Saigon fell to the
North's army as the last Americans were evacuated from the roof of the US
Embassy. In the United States, those two years - the notorious "decent
interval" between military and political outcomes - proved sufficient to
insulate politicians from a massive policy failure but was insufficient to
insulate the Pentagon from charges that it "lost" Vietnam. After all, wars are
fought and won (or lost) by the military, not by politicians.
In this context, it is noteworthy that President Bush remains insistent that
the generals in Iraq, not politicians in Washington, will be the
decision-makers. This insistence may be adding to the lack of clarity on Iraq
policy. The three- and four-star generals and admirals still on active duty are
the last of the Vietnam War veterans. They were part of the US Army that
withdrew from South Vietnam. They lived through the post-Vietnam
reduction-in-force, the transition to the all-volunteer army, and the mid- and
late 1970s when there were more bases and units than volunteers to fill the
Most are on their last assignment. At the end of their careers, they do not
want to be associated with anything that suggests failure. Thus they will
search for every flash of good news as evidence that sustaining political
pressure on Baghdad will - like sustained pressure converts carbon into
diamonds - transform the country's current chaos into a durable, shining
Dan Smith is a military-affairs analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus, a
retired US Army colonel, and a senior fellow on military affairs at the Friends
Committee on National Legislation. His weblog is The Quakers' Colonel.