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.