Caught off guard by a rapid deterioration in support for the Iraq war, the White House is scrambling to give the president's "surge" strategy the time he thought it had – and to preserve executive-branch control of Iraq policy.
President Bush had expected Congress to hold off on any judgment of the strategy involving a US force buildup in Iraq until the delivery of a comprehensive report on the strategy's performance in September. But with an interim assessment demanded by Congress arriving by the end of this week – and coinciding with deliberations over a defense authorization bill – it's suddenly September in July in Washington.
With Mr. Bush at risk of seeing a restive Congress begin to place limits on Iraq policy, the administration is fighting back. The president has gone on the stump, saying he, too, has plans for eventually drawing down the number of troops in Iraq, but warning of the consequences for America's security if the US changes the current course too soon. The White House is focused on shoring up support among Senate Republicans, with National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley visiting Capitol Hill this week.
The pushback is following two lines of attack: one, that the presence of some 30,000 additional troops is beginning to bear fruit, even if not among the "benchmarks" set by Congress when it approved Iraq funding in May; and that members of Congress are allowing political motivations to trump long-term security priorities.
"American forces are winning, the enemy is on the run, but here in Congress, in Washington, some members seem to be on the run – chased, I fear, by public opinion polls," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I) of Connecticut, a staunch Iraq "surge" policy advocate, in a Senate floor statement Tuesday.
In a town-hall-style speech in Cleveland the same day, Bush focused on two points he hopes will stop wavering Republicans from joining Democrats in demanding a drawdown of troops beginning this year. He said the troop buildup, announced in January, has only recently reached its full numbers, and he warned that cutting short the US military offensive would have repercussions for US security down the road.
"Failure in Iraq would have serious consequences for the security of your children and grandchildren," Bush told the audience. Iran and "extremists" would be emboldened if America showed signs of backing down from the fight, he said.
As for the additional troops, who have been arriving gradually since February, the president said, "They just showed up – and in Washington, people are saying, 'Stop!' " He then said, "Congress ought to wait for Gen. [David] Petraeus," the US commander in Iraq who is to deliver a comprehensive assessment of the strategy in September, "before they make any decisions."
The key to improving conditions in Iraq remains security, with some analysts backing the president in arguing that the additional US troops haven't yet had enough time to show what their presence can do. "Any negotiations [among the Iraqis] will be meaningless unless some workable security environment is in place," says Robert Lieber, a foreign-policy expert at Georgetown University in Washington.
Yet the force buildup was supposed to pave the way for Iraqi action, and that is what critics of the strategy say is not happening.
One factor motivating a Senate rebellion is the failure of the Iraqi government to make tangible progress on the "benchmarks" set by Congress that were to promote Iraqi national reconciliation. With an improved security situation, the Iraqi government was supposed to have the "breathing room" it needed to pass key legislation on power-sharing among the country's sectarian populations, and to tackle sectarian militias.
Still, supporters of the troop-buildup strategy say it is showing promising results, even if the Iraqi government has failed to move on the benchmarks set by Congress. "I always thought those were unreasonable benchmarks," said Frederick Kagan, one of the strategy's architects, at a Washington forum this week.
But the strategy is showing results in other ways, says Mr. Kagan, a military historian at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Political progress has been "significant" in the Sunni Arab community, he says, where tribal leaders have cut ties to Al Qaeda-associated groups and agreed to join the US in rooting them out of their communities. Local governments are taking advantage of improved security and taking action even if the national government isn't, he adds.
"Improvements in security and prospects for political progress: I still think that's what [General Petraeus] will come back with" in September, Kagan says. What all this means is that the 'surge' "may yet fail … but it hasn't yet."
But even these points of progress are being criticized by others. Some security experts are cautioning, for example, that the rallying of Sunni Arab tribes to the US side in the battle with Islamic extremists may constitute a short-term gain but could undermine other US goals in Iraq. The tribes are not pledging support for a strong national government, for one.
Skeptics also counter the "improved security" argument by pointing out that sectarian violence has ratcheted up in other parts of the country as US troops have focused on Baghdad and the Sunni-dominant Anbar Province. This suggests that in order for the troop buildup to really work, it would require several times more the additional troops.
Some opponents of congressional efforts to change US Iraq policy say the proposed amendments would be tantamount to the legislative branch wresting control of foreign policy from the executive branch. Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, just back from Iraq, used those grounds to criticize a defense-funding amendment proposed by Sen. Jim Webb (D) of Virginia that would give soldiers deployed to Iraq as much time back home as their deployment before they could be redeployed.
But the argument that appears to be swaying rebellious Senate Republicans is the one that finds the Iraqis are not holding up their side of a bargain struck in January. With US troops dying at an accelerated rate and the US spending nearly $10 billion a month, more of them are finding it reasonable to expect progress.
"Simply put, our troops have been doing a great job, but the Iraqi government has not," Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R) of North Carolina, said Tuesday. "It is my firm hope and belief that we can start bringing our troops home in 2008."
The House is also expected to vote this week on a measure to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq in 120 days.