Just before Christmas, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld signaled the possible beginning of U.S. troop reductions in Iraq when he announced that two brigades scheduled for combat tours would not be deployed and that troop levels might fall below 130,000 U.S. soldiers in March (the current force size is about 138,000). But (with apologies to all my lawyer friends) like the proverbial joke about 100 lawyers trapped in a submarine at the bottom of the sea, it’s just a good start. And it’s not at all clear whether it’s real or illusory, fleeting or permanent.
One is supposed to be charitable at Christmas, but it was hard not to see past possible political motivation for such an announcement. Certainly during the holidays the pang of separation for military families is especially acute, so the prospect of soldiers in Iraq being reunited with loved ones and soldiers at home not having to deploy overseas was much-welcomed holiday cheer and would help make Rumsfeld and the Bush administration seem less like the Grinch and bolster support from the troops. But it may have been not enough and a little late in coming if a recent poll by the Military Times is any indication: support for Bush’s Iraq policy among the military has fallen from 63 percent a year ago to 54 percent now.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to boost troop morale, but the announcement also came at a time when public support for President Bush’s Iraq policy has been flagging including increased calls for a U.S. pullout from Iraq. A CNN/USA Today Gallup poll conducted just before Christmas showed that 59 percent of Americans thought troops should not stay in Iraq more than another year. So it shouldn’t come as any great surprise that the administration would make an attempt to give the public some assurances that troops will be withdrawn from Iraq.
Given that I am an advocate of an “exit yesterday” strategy and am on record that we should “bail out” of Iraq, one would think that I’d be praising the administration for finally waking up and smelling the coffee. If anything, I should be borrowing a phrase from that neoconservative stalwart Michael Ledeen: “Faster, please.” Indeed, a few days after Rumsfeld’s announcement, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Corps General Peter Pace seemingly reinforced Rumsfeld’s pronouncement when he said, “If things go the way we expect them to, as more Iraqi units stand up, we’ll be able to bring our troops down and turn over that territory to the Iraqis.” But in the next breath he uttered the same caveat that the administration has always made for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq: “But on the other hand, the enemy has a vote in this, and if they were to cause some kind of problems that required more troops, then we would do exactly what we’ve done in the past, which is give the commanders on the ground what they need. And in that case, you could see troop level go up a little bit to handle that problem.”
So while there are tantalizing hints of possible future troop reductions, the administration’s criteria for exiting Iraq remain the same. In a pre-Christmas address to the nation, President Bush said, “It is also important for every American to understand the consequences of pulling out of Iraq before our work is done. To retreat before victory would be an act of recklessness and dishonor, and I will not allow it.” Victory, however, is not ours to claim or decide it will be ceded to us only when the enemy decides to give up. In the immediate aftermath of the Iraqi parliamentary elections in December, it appears that the enemy is still determined and not giving up. Just three days after the elections, suicide bombers and gunmen killed nearly two dozen people. A little more than a week later, more than two dozen people including a U.S. soldier were killed. The new year in Iraq was rung in with 13 car bombings. And just yesterday, a suicide bomber killed 42 people at a funeral.
Also not boding well for the security situation in Iraq is the recent report that Iraqi oil production is at its lowest level since the U.S. invasion in 2003. This is a triple whammy. First because the oil shortages result in losses of power for prolonged periods of time and miles-long lines for gasoline public frustration can foster internal instability. Second since oil is the life’s blood of the Iraqi economy the inability to produce and export oil contributes to unemployment, which creates a potential pool of angry young men (and women) as would-be suicide bombers. And third, without petrodollars, the new Iraqi government runs the risk of not being able to afford to properly train and equip its fledgling security forces to combat insurgents and jihadists.
Thus, if security and stability in Iraq are the benchmarks for withdrawing U.S. troops indeed, President Bush said, “I will make decisions on troop levels based on the progress we see on the ground” the prospects are not exactly promising.
There is also the question of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. His stature in the eyes of the Bush administration is equal to Osama bin Laden: the reward for Zarqawi’s capture now stands at $25 million, the same as the bounty on the head of bin Laden. President Bush has previously claimed that if the U.S. military withdrew from Iraq, Zarqawi and al-Qaeda would take over the country. So it is hard to imagine the administration withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq with Zarqawi still at large. Of course, doing so wouldn’t be any different than the administration essentially ignoring Osama bin Laden in Pakistan (but that’s another story for another column).
Ultimately, all the talk of withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq is just that: talk designed to create the illusion that the administration is serious about ending the occupation to appease restless voters. And the reason for all the talk should be abundantly clear: the looming 2006 midterm elections that threaten to unseat Republican control of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill once said that “all politics is local,” and President Bush understands that local politics means here in the United States, not in Iraq. But just because he is talking the talk does not mean he will walk the walk.
I hate to be a cynic and will gladly be proven wrong (indeed, I actually hope to be), but don’t be surprised if in a feat of legerdemain (or perhaps more appropriately, bait and switch) there are 100,000 or more U.S. troops still in Iraq a year from now.