Today, Iraq turned a corner. There is a long road ahead before America’s criminal entanglement can be sorted out, but the fact that the Iraq Study Group–the blue-ribbon task force co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker–has proposed to end the role of US combat forces in Iraq will irreversibly begin the process of ending the war itself.
Created last spring as a mechanism to force President Bush to reverse course on Iraq, the ISG has succeeded in its central mission, namely, the establishment of a benchmark for a bipartisan accord–in Congress, and among the foreign policy elite–for the withdrawal of American forces in Iraq. By hammering out a consensus among its ten members, the ISG’s report will create unstoppable momentum for “redeployment” of those forces. Its formal report will be released next Wednesday.
Newly empowered Democrats on Capitol Hill, bolstered by an overwhelming electoral mandate on Iraq from the November 7 antiwar vote that swept them into power, will be emboldened by the ISG to exert maximum pressure on the White House for the “phased withdrawal” plan put forward by Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Expect that to begin Tuesday, at hearings to confirm Robert Gates, a former member of the Iraq Study Group and a realist with close ties to Baker, as Secretary of Defense.
The Democrats will also scrutinize, line by line, the Pentagon’s Iraq war budget requests, including a $127 billion to $160 billion request to cover the costs of the war through October. And expect the Democrats in both the House and the Senate to have Baker, Hamilton et al. appear at multiple Congressional hearings to explore the ongoing disaster in Iraq and the way out. The Democrats will use all of these hearings to build bridges to Republican centrists like Senator John Warner, the current chair of the Armed Services Committee, and his Senate colleagues Chuck Hagel, Dick Lugar, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.
Those Republicans, and many others, are desperate to take Iraq off the table as an election issue for 2008. Indeed, the ISG itself was created by the Republicans in Congress, including Warner and Representative Frank Wolf, a Virginia colleague of Warner’s, who were frustrated with the White House’s stubborn insistence on staying the course.
Bush, who even this week continued to pay lip service to the idea of “victory” in Iraq–“We can accept nothing less than victory,” he said in Latvia, closing the NATO meeting there–can no longer hold out against the full array of US public opinion, political pressure from Capitol Hill, realist-minded bureaucrats at the State Department and the CIA, and a vast consensus among the US foreign policy establishment. He will be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the real world–although the finely worded report of the ISG, when it is released December 6, is nearly certain to provide the President with a fig leaf to cover his nakedness as he executes an about-face. Indeed, amid the usual rhetoric from the President, there were signs today that he was opening the door for a change in policy. After meeting the Iraqi prime minister in Amman, Jordan, Bush said that America will stay in Iraq “so long as the [Iraqi] government wants us there,” and he said that the United States is in Iraq “at the request of a sovereign government elected by the [Iraqi] people.”