With little fanfare, at least so far, the stage is being set for a post-"surge" Iraq strategy that reduces US ambitions for the Iraq project, even while keeping some US forces there for years to come.
No decisions have yet been made, and administration officials insist the current strategy that has pumped an additional 30,000 troops into Iraq still must be given time to work. But the contours of a new approach floating around Washington suggest a drawing down of the 160,000 US forces there beginning as early as the end of this year. The thousands that remain would be refocused on training Iraqi security forces and on a long fight against Al Qaeda.
Just how much momentum the new Iraq-strategy snowball has behind it will start to become clearer this week as Congress is to receive an interim report on the performance of the force buildup and as Democrats try to use another funding vote on Iraq to press for faster change.
The new strategy is still in its formative stages in White House discussions, on Pentagon drawing boards, and on congressional desks. It is a source of division in the White House, although President Bush continues to warn against the dangers of any US withdrawal. But it is reflective of political realities in both the US and Iraq.
Time is running short for achieving political consensus in the US on Iraq policy before the 2008 campaign kicks off in earnest, political leaders and experts say. On the other hand, more time is needed to achieve political consensus in Iraq. That leaves an ironic situation where the political clocks of the two countries are not just running at different speeds, as has been said for months, but in different directions.
"What we're seeing is preparation for the post-'surge' period, particularly as it coincides with a critical political cycle culminating in the 2008 elections," says Nikolas Gvosdev, a foreign-policy expert and editor of The National Interest, a foreign-affairs magazine. "The hallmark will be fewer troops, but it will also signal the moving away from the idea of any grandiose transformation of Iraq. Instead, it becomes, 'We're there to fight Al Qaeda.' "
Signs of the growing consensus for a new approach that includes a major reduction in the US footprint in Iraq are visible on several fronts:
•Several prominent Republican senators have recently turned against the White House and are now calling for a change in Iraq strategy. Last week Sen. Pete Domeneci of New Mexico joined Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, a respected US foreign-policy specialist, who a week earlier used a Senate speech to call for a new strategy reducing the US presence in Iraq. George Voinovich of Ohio followed Senator Lugar, while John Warner of Virginia is known to be pressuring the White House to change course.
•Defense Secretary Robert Gates is pressing for a post-"surge" Iraq strategy that would rest on a foundation of broad political consensus around the idea of impeding Iraq from becoming a haven of Islamic extremism. Such a strategy would also keep thousands of US troops in Iraq for a long-term battle with Al Qaeda.
•White House officials acknowledge that the administration is already looking beyond the current approach. Mr. Bush hinted at the priority he is likely to give the fight against Al Qaeda in a July 4 speech where he said the US has no choice but to "win" the Iraq fight "for our own sake, for the security of our citizens."
Democrats are hoping to use a Senate defense authorization bill to be taken up this week to press for troop withdrawals to begin as early as the fall.
Congress is also to receive by July 15 an interim report on the force buildup, ahead of a full assessment by commanders in Iraq in September. Significantly, it was Senator Warner who insisted on the July 15 review, upon the passage of funding for the Iraq war in May, saying that waiting for September was "too long."
Most observers expect efforts to force quick troop withdrawals to fail, as did Democratic efforts to force a timeline for withdrawals earlier this year. But the Democrats are also armed this time around with fresh evidence that Americans want a new Iraq direction – and that they expect a Democratic Congress to do something about it.
A survey by the Rasmussen Reports polling group, conducted last week, found that 53 percent of Americans fault the Democrats for not doing "enough to change President Bush's policies on Iraq." At the same time, 56 percent said they would like to see most combat troops out of Iraq by early next year.
Many observers expect the efforts before Congress recesses in August to merely "put the writing on the wall" in anticipation of testimony in September from Gen. David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador in Baghdad. The two are to give an assessment of the force buildup, but some analysts expect it will be more like a final report card.
"When Petraeus comes in September, he'll say the tactics of the 'surge' are the right ones and they would work, but there's no consensus behind the time and number of people needed to make it work," says Mr. Gvosdev. "And that will be particularly true in the absence of any real progress from the Iraqi government."
What seems to worry some congressional leaders like Lugar and even some administration officials is that sticking too long to a doomed strategy could create the political conditions for a full and precipitous withdrawal from Iraq – something they believe would be disastrous for US interests in the Middle East.
"Basically what you have are the grown-ups in the administration like Gates saying, 'We have to come up with something for the long term, something that achieves broad-based support, because if we don't, the people who say we have to get out now will prevail, and we don't want that,' " says Lawrence Korb, a former Defense Department official now at the Center for American Progress in Washington.
Forging a consensus around a long-term strategy for the global fight against Islamist terrorism would give Gates – not the closest administration insider – a sense of having contributed a significant accomplishment, some Washington insiders say. But they also suggest he could leave the administration if he concluded the wrong road were being followed for too long.
Lugar said in a television interview earlier this month that as president, Bush would probably be able to stick to the "surge" strategy through the end of his term if he chose to. But he added that he thought Bush would grasp the political realities and begin charting a new course.
Indeed, on the prosaic political level, the pressures of the 2008 election extend beyond the White House race to congressional contests. Analysts note that the terms are up in 2008 for some of the Republicans pressuring Bush, including Senator Domeneci and Warner. "They are beginning to look beyond the president to the horizon after Bush, and they may see that the political cost of sticking with his policy is too high," says Gvosdev.
But beyond the political considerations, the juxtaposition of the "three worst months of the war for American casualties" with the failure of the Iraqi government to move the country toward reconciliation has already spelled the current strategy's failure in the eyes of too many Americans, Mr. Korb says.
The impending interim strategy review and funding votes, Korb says, "are simply the beginning of the end."