Bush hails troop cuts as 'return on success' in Iraq
But his speech Thursday ignores failure of Iraqi political reconciliation, critics say.
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Yet Kupchan and other critics of the president's handling of Iraq say they fear Bush's trumpeting of the tactical successes of the surge is just one more in a line of events the administration has used to claim a corner has been turned in the Iraq war."This is another in a series of points where significantly positive developments are claimed as a way of extending the policy into the future," Kupchan says.Skip to next paragraph
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That line of "pivotal moments" includes the capture of Sadddam Hussein, the capture and killing of his sons Uday and Qusay, the approval in a referendum of a new Iraqi constitution, national elections resulting in the current parliament, the killing of Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and now the switching of Sunni tribal cooperationin Anbar Province from Al-Qaeda-associated extremists to the US.
Yet Bush clearly felt compelled to acknowledge that nothing in Iraq is so clear-cut as "victory" or turning a corner. The president cited one piece of bad news from earlier in the day: the murder by car-bombing of leading sheik in what has been called "the Anbar awakening." Abdel-Sattar Abu Risha, who met with Bush earlier this month as head of the Anbar Awakening council, was killed just outside the Anbar capital of Ramadi when a roadside bomb struck his vehicle.
But White House officials were insisting that Thursday's speech marks a pivotal moment when military success against Al Qaeda in Iraq and in providing more security to the Iraqi people means the US will be able to begin adopting a new mission of guiding the Iraqi security forces in taking over more military operations.
"The mission over time will shift from ... our forces doing the population security to the Iraqis doing population security," says one senior administration official. "So you'll see US troops doing less of the leading in combat patrols ... and more and more enabling the Iraqis to do it themselves."
To some experts that sounds very close to the "as they stand up we'll stand down" policy that was Bush's mantra before the surge. But administration officials say the difference now is that as Iraqi security forces take over, they will maintain the surge's emphasis on localized public security.
And as for the administration's new emphasis on bottom-up political progress rather than national political reconciliation, some Iraq experts say it simply acknowledges the reality that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is practically nonexistent, is unable to move forward on stalled legislation, and is unlikely to become functional any time soon.
But as the White House prepared to deliver a required report on Iraq to Congress Friday, officials insisted the administration continues to press the Iraqis on the benchmarks for progress that all sides – the White House, the US Congress, and the Iraqi government – had agreed on.
"We're not moving the goal posts about the benchmarks; the benchmarks are important, and we want them to be met," says another senior administration official, who asked not to be named because the president had not yet delivered his speech. "However, they are not the only signs of progress or the only things to measure."
The Council on Foreign Relations' Kupchan says the White House has "deftly undercut the voices calling for a deadline for withdrawal." He says administration officials cleverly made a return to pre-surge troop numbers by next summer seem like a compromise and accepting a middle ground.
But with the White House eschewing any use of the phrase "exit strategy" and Bush still speaking Thursday of a "democratic Iraq" that is an example to the Middle East, Kupchan says the image left is of a president who plans to stick with his vision as long as he is in office.
"The issue this administration has yet to grapple with is, how do we get out of Iraq?," Kupchan says. "In effect, they are kicking the can down the road in a waythat avoids having to deal with some very difficult decisions."