For Democrats, here’s the bad news: now that they have won control of Congress, they are expected to not only criticize President Bush’s policies in Iraq but to derive a solution to the mess he has created.

On Thursday morning, incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid met with several journalists, including yours truly. In his opening remarks, he outlined his plans. He noted that he will compel senators to work longer hours and dramatically expand the Tuesday-through-Thursday-at-noon work week that has become routine in the Senate. He said he would cut back on recess time. The first bill he intends to introduce as majority leader, he declared, would target sleazy campaign tactics, and he pointed to the misleading robocalls and false campaign literature used by Republicans in the final days of the recent congressional elections. He then turned to Iraq and called for some form of a “phased withdrawal.”

“What we need to do first of all is implement the laws of the land,” Reid said, referring to a resolution passed months ago by Congress calling for 2006 to be a year of significant transition in Iraq. “This law has been ignored,” he complained. And he noted that 39 senators did vote for a Democratic amendment–another non-binding resolution–urging the beginning of the redeployment of troops from Iraq (without setting any deadlines for their departure). Reid indicated that he and the Democrats would continue to press for initiating a withdrawal: “We’re an occupying force.” But Reid also said that the United States had “to do a better job” on counterinsurgency and the training of Iraqi security forces. Pointing out that Baghdad now has less than fours of electricity a day, Reid said, “We need to revitalize reconstruction.” He also called for a regional conference to work out a path ahead for Iraq.

But here’s the rub: can the United States rebuild Iraq and remake its security forces while intense sectarian conflict is under way? And can it do so while removing troops? I asked Reid if the revitalization of Iraq and the creation of an Iraqi military and police force that is not beholden to sects and militias is at this point “a bridge too far.” His reply: “It may be a bridge too far, but at least it’s a bridge somewhere….There has to be a plan to get us out of there…This is my plan.”

There seems to be a contradiction between the two sides of this plan: disengage (via troop withdrawals) but make reconstruction and training work. Reid noted the recent testimony of General John Abizaid, the head of Central Command, who said that progress needed to happen in Iraq in the next four to five months, and Reid compared this remark to the comment of Senator Carl Levin, the Democrat who will become chairman of the armed services committee, who said that redeployment of US troops should begin in four or five months. He appeared to be suggesting that under a Democratic plan there would be a window of opportunity–four or five months–for the Bush administration and the Iraqi government (such as it is) to work things out before US troops would start to leave. But it isn’t realistic to expect significant (and positive) change within this time, especially when the situation in Iraq appears to worsen by the week.

As Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus reported on Friday–in an article headlined, “Violence in Iraq Called Increasingly Complex”–the dynamics of the conflict in Iraq are becoming harder, not easier, to sort out and address. He wrote:

Attacks in Iraq reached a high of approximately 180 a day last month, reflecting an increasingly complicated conflict that includes sectarian clashes of Sunni and Shiite militias on top of continuing strikes by insurgents, criminal gangs and al-Qaeda terrorists, according to the directors of the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency.

“No single narrative is sufficient to explain all the violence we see in Iraq today,” Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the CIA director, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.

Attempting to describe the enemy, Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples, the DIA director, listed “Iraqi nationalists, ex-Baathists, former military, angry Sunni, Jihadists, foreign fighters and al-Qaeda,” who create an “overlapping, complex and multi-polar Sunni insurgent and terrorist environment.” He added that “Shia militias and Shia militants, some Kurdish pesh merga, and extensive criminal activity further contribute to violence, instability and insecurity.”

These descriptions suggest an increasingly difficult state of affairs that will not be much improved in four or five months.

And if the president does not heed the Democrats’ call to start withdrawing troops by the spring, what will they do? After all, Reid noted that when he met with Bush the previous week he did not sense much “willingness to change.” So will he, House Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi, who has also advocated a withdrawal of troops, and the Democrats try to choke off funding for the war or attempt to impose legislative mandates upon the commander in chief? “We’re not going to back off this,” Reid said–without mentioning any specific steps. If Bush stays the course or elects to send more troops to Iraq, Reid said, “We’ll speak out loudly.” Speaking out loudly, though, will not likely persuade Bush at this stage or lead to any course corrections.

Reid noted that Iraq is “the number-one issue” for the Senate’s new Democrats and the war is “hurting our country.” He added, “the whole situation [in Iraq] is breaking down.” But can Iraq be saved? As Democrats establish their opening position in the coming fight with the White House over Iraq–a battle that will be shaped by whatever former Secretary of State James Baker’s Iraq Study Group recommends next month–they are asking for a lot: disengagement from Iraq and a US policy that results in a better Iraq (one with a functioning central government, a revived economy, and effective security forces not under the control or influence of sectarian militias). Redeployment is certainly achievable; making Iraq work may not be. There certainly is no guarantee that the withdrawal will quickly lead to a stable and secure Iraq. Pulling out American troops might remove a possible obstacle to a political accommodation among Iraqi parties that leads to less chaos and violence. The removal of troops, though, could cause the opposite and render it tougher for the Iraqi government (even with much U.S. assistance) to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure and to train a worthwhile military and police force–particularly if other nations, including those of the region, do not become more involved in repairing Iraq.

In calling for a phased withdrawal, Reid, Pelosi, and the Democrats need to be careful not to promise that the removal of troops will be accompanied by political, economic, and security improvements. They might have to choose between disengagement and the continuing (though failing) effort to stand up an effective government and Iraqi army. The Democrats also must ponder how oppositional to be should Bush adhere to Vice President Cheney’s pre-election vow to go “full speed ahead” with their current Iraq policy.

As the Democrats take over the legislative branch, they are assuming fifty-fifty ownership of one of the most vexing foreign policy challenges in the nation’s history: how to undo Bush’s war in Iraq. They have to realize that disengagement–even if the correct call–might carry with it ugly consequences and not bolster the prospects for rebuilding and stabilizing Iraq. Sadly, those aims, due to Bush’s blunders, may be beyond America’s control. So far that has been tough for the Democrats–or Bush–to admit.


At the breakfast meeting with journalists, Reid also said:

* The Senate intelligence committee will finish its so-called Phase II inquiry, which is supposed to evaluate how the Bush administration used the prewar intelligence to garner public support for the invasion of Iraq. A year ago, Reid closed down the Senate to protest the Republican delay in producing this report. “That will be completed now,” he said. “It may not help us in the future, but it will give us the historical background of what got us into the war.” He added, “We’re going to get the answers to that out….We have been jerked around….And we’re not going to take it anymore.”

* He intends to target tax breaks for the oil industry and the monopoly exemption enjoyed by the insurance industry. “We have to rise up,” he said.

* He fully backs Howard Dean as the Democratic Party chairman. “I didn’t support his running for the chair of the DNC,” Reid said. “I was wrong. He was right….I support his grassroots Democratic Party-building.”


DON”T FORGET ABOUT HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR, the best-selling book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff. Click here for information on the book. The New York Times calls Hubris “the most comprehensive account of the White House’s political machinations” and “fascinating reading.” The Washington Post says, “There have been many books about the Iraq war….This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft.” Tom Brokaw notes Hubris “is a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq.” Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, “The selling of Bush’s Iraq debacle is one of the most important–and appalling–stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it.” For highlights from Hubris, click here.