Ever since the 2003 invasion, the unanswered question has been whether success in Iraq or antiwar politics in Washington would set the clock for a US pullout. This week, with the reports of Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, that clock was likely reset to 2009 and beyond – into the next US presidency.
General Petraeus's cool, detailed presentation of "tactical momentum" from the military surge, combined with Ambassador Crocker's nurtured "seeds of [Iraqi] reconciliation" and warnings of Mideast meltdown from a premature pullback, have temporarily doused the fire in Congress for a firm pullout date, which many wanted for next year.
Despite the upbeat reports by these two unflappable professionals, the goal of a stable, democratic Iraq remains elusive. Petraeus's recommended rollback of 30,000 "surge" troops is based only on his hopes of continued progress until March, when he wants a rethink on troop reductions; the surge levels are unsustainable anyway for a beleaguered Army.
And Crocker says, "There will be no single moment at which we can claim victory. Any turning point will likely only be recognized in retrospect." That's not a concept of war that impatient Americans easily grasp or accept.
In the unspoken pact of cynical politics in Washington, Petraeus's open-ended timetable for withdrawal only helps Democrats keep Iraq as an issue for the 2008 election and allows President Bush to throw his unfinished Iraq project to his successor. All the more reason for Mr. Bush, in his speech to the nation Thursday, to restore his credibility as commander in chief by more firmly defining US troop levels and Iraqi progress for his remaining 16 months in office.
Unlike Petraeus, the president must straddle the twin demands of a successful mission in Iraq and satisfying the will of wearied Americans for the war to end.
So far, he's been arm-twisting wavering Republicans in Congress to block a pullout vote while the US creates small successes in Iraq, such as reduced violence in Baghdad from the surge, a slow building up of Iraqi forces, and the turning of the key Sunni province of Anbar into an anti-Al Qaeda enclave. Bush still needs to find levers to push Iraqi leaders into defining the power of the central government, distributing oil wealth, and creating a nonsectarian army.
But that's just Iraq itself. The strategy of Iran to keep its neighbor unstable and the US on the defensive by supporting militants will require astute diplomacy by Bush in the coming months. The military surge and other steps along the border have pinched the Iranian influence to some degree. But Iran and the US need to work out a deal that leaves a stable Iraq, one independent of both powers. According to Crocker, Iraqi leaders now see Iran's devious intent.
Both the US – if it withdraws too early – and Iran – by fueling violence in Iraq – run the risk of creating conditions in Iraq and the region that both would regret. On that, they can find common ground.
Victory has many faces for Iraq, but none is more important than time and peace for Iraqis to work out their differences. Petraeus's able leadership, and maybe Bush's too, may give them that hope.