Iraq: The View from Year Six
Sure, we're just passing the fifth anniversary of the moment when, on March 19, 2003, as cruise missiles were heading for Baghdad, George W. Bush told the American people:
"My fellow citizens, at this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.... My fellow citizens, the dangers to our country and the world will be overcome. We will pass through this time of peril and carry on the work of peace. We will defend our freedom. We will bring freedom to others and we will prevail."
But that's no reason not to write the first sixth-anniversary-of-the-Iraq-War article. This piece is penned in the spirit of Senator John McCain's recent request that Americans not obsess about the origins of the Iraq War, but look forward. "On the issue of my differences with Senator Obama on Iraq," he typically said, "I want to make it very clear: This is not about decisions that were made in the past. This is about decisions that a president will have to make about the future in Iraq."
If the future, not the past, is the mantra, then let me ask you a future-oriented question: What's wrong with these sentences?
On March 19, 2009, the date of the sixth anniversary of President Bush's invasion of Iraq, as surely as the sun rises in the East I'll be sitting here and we will still have many tens of thousands of troops, a string of major bases, and massive air power in that country. In the intervening year, more Americans and many more Iraqis will have been wounded or killed; more chaos and conflict will have ensued; many more bombs will have been dropped, missiles launched, and suicide bombs exploded. Iraq will still be a hell on Earth.
Prediction is a risky business. Otherwise I'd now be commuting via jet pack through spire cities (as the futuristic articles of my youth so regularly predicted). If you were to punch holes in the above sentences, you would certainly note that it's risky for a man of 63 years to suggest that he'll be sitting anywhere on March 19, 2009. Unfortunately, when it comes to the American position in Iraq, short of an act of God, the sixth anniversary of George Bush's war of choice is going to dawn much like the fifth one.
As a start, you can write off the next ten months, right up to January 20, 2009, inauguration day for the next President. True, last fall Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was considering bringing American troop strength in Iraq down to 100,000 by the end of George Bush's second term. However, that was, as they evidently love to say in Washington, just a "best-case scenario." Since then, the Administration has signaled an end-of-July drawdown "pause" of unknown duration after American troop strength, now at 157,000, hits about 142,000.
The President is clearly dragging his feet on removing even modest numbers of soldiers. As he leaves office, it seems likely that there will be at least 130,000 US troops in the country, about the same as there were before, in February 2007, his surge strategy kicked in. In addition, in the past year, US airpower has "surged" in Iraq--and continues to do so--while US mega-bases in that country continue to be built up. There are no evident plans to reverse either of these developments by January 20, 2009. No presidential candidate is even discussing them.
Any official "best case" scenario for drawdowns assumes, by the way, that the version of Iraq created during the surge months--at best, an unstable combination of Sunni, Shia, Kurdish, and American plans and desires--remains in place and that Iraqi carnage stays off the front pages of American papers. This is anything but a given, as British journalist Patrick Cockburn reported recently in a piece headlined, "Why Iraq Could Blow Up in John McCain's Face." Indeed it could.