On Iraq policy, next U.S. president will have to adapt
Despite their rhetoric, '08 candidates try to keep their options open.
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"If we manage to stabilize the situation in Iraq and manage to get casualties close to zero, I don't think the idea of having troops there is terribly controversial," says Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an adviser to McCain. President Bill Clinton promised to get troops out of Bosnia, yet many are still there a decade later, he says.Skip to next paragraph
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"And I think that's fine," Mr. Boot says. "It's very hard for people to see Iraq in that context right now."
Some of the conditions in Iraq that first drove the debate over withdrawal have changed. Last year's surge of about 30,000 US troops improved security there. But the political reconciliation that better security was supposed to allow has not been realized in full. Further political reconciliation in Iraq is germane because it is driving the candidates' positions on the US mission there – and success or failure come January 2009 will determine the approach of the next president. Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, maintains that Iraqi reconciliation, thought disappointingly slow, is still possible.
More progress on political reconciliation, or more violence on the ground, would push either of the Democrats to speed up troop withdrawal, and either scenario would be likely to force McCain to be more specific about his withdrawal plan.
The Afghanistan war, too, could shape a future president's tack on Iraq. If operations there continue to deteriorate, that will put more pressure on a president to reconsider his or her resources in Iraq.
About 158,000 troops are currently in Iraq, including 19 combat brigades, and current plans call for about 140,000 to be there by July – a reduction of five combat brigades since the surge was implemented. One brigade has returned home, and last week military officials announced that the second combat brigade, the 82nd Airborne Division, has almost completed its redeployment after a 15-month tour. Three more will redeploy by July, and Bush administration officials have hinted that another, smaller phase of withdrawals may occur by year's end.
But all candidates will be constrained by the speed at which the Pentagon can oversee a withdrawal of troops beyond that. Each will be responsible for making the right decision at the time, despite their election-season stances on Iraq.
"No one would be so stupid to come into office, see what the situation is, and then do the wrong thing," he says.