How the political game on Iraq will play out

The Thinker by Rodin

If you want a likely playbook of what will follow, possibly as soon as next year, think of the diaspora that occurred when Great Britain decided to turn greater India into India, and East and West Pakistan. Where there are pluralistic communities inside Iraq, expect them to become single ethnicity. Shi’ites are mostly already where they already need to be. Sunnis living in predominantly Shi’ite territories will beat a hasty retreat toward predominantly Sunni areas.

Occam’s Razor, How Iraq Will Dissemble, August 10, 2005

Having recently offered up my strategy for Iraq, I thought it might be more relevant to explain how our presence in Iraq is likely to play out over the next few years. Of course, my strategy will garner no attention from the Bush White House, the Joint Chiefs or Congress. After all, I am just a blogger and consequently irrelevant in this policy debate.

First it is important to understand why the current Iraq debate is being framed the way it is. Liberal Democrats are particularly incensed that the Congressional Democratic leadership will not take real action to end our involvement in Iraq. Instead, Congressional Democrats seem to be surrendering on the issue. For example, recently Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid suggested he was willing to work with Senate Republicans to fashion some sort of compromise strategy on Iraq. The same dynamic is occurring in the House of Representatives. Finding a way out of Iraq has devolved into maybe finding enough votes to require the president to begin putting together a report on how our forces could be withdrawn.

The Senate is burdened by a rule that requires 60 senators to vote to end a filibuster. Clearly, there are not 60 Senate Democrats. This means that unless there is consensus among 60 senators a bill cannot advance to a vote. Any bill sent to the president can of course be vetoed, requiring 67 Senate votes to override.

In the House while most Democrats want to end the war, Democrats are fractured on how to end it. While it is easier to vote on legislation in the House, it suffers from the same problem as in the Senate. Both need a two third vote to override a presidential veto. Consequently, the power to end the war actually rests in the approximately one sixth of Congress that is needed to override a presidential veto but which is currently inclined to support the President. The bulk of these members are Republican. Until they are persuaded to vote against the President, the political dynamics on Capitol Hill are unlikely to change much.

The political dynamics could change depending on events in Iraq. If the situation worsens in Iraq, it becomes easier to find Republicans who will buck the President’s strategy. As next year’s election nears, barring some major successes in Iraq, it also becomes riskier for Republicans to keep backing the President. Despite relatively modest success from the surge, the polls have not budged much. Today’s ABC News-Washington Post poll bears this out.

However, Democrats do control the agenda. They could refuse to bring an Iraqi war supplemental bill to come to a vote, effectively cutting off funds for the war. Unfortunately, the Iraq war debate has been effective framed by the Republicans as “if you do not fund the troops in their mission then you are not supporting the troops”. What “support the troops” means is very wishy-washy. If cutting off funding were interpreted by the public as endangering our soldiers’ lives, the fear in Congress is that the American people would subsequently vote the Democrats out of power. Above all else, Congressional Democrats want to avoid losing power in Congress in the 2008 elections. So however odious it is to keep funding the war, they will find that it will be a necessity to do so. Hence, there is no serious talk of cutting off funding for the war, and guarded talk about a bipartisan limp-wristed compromise instead.

At the White House, the fear is that things will markedly worsen in Iraq. If that happens the political dynamics become malleable again. In that event, moderate Republicans are likely to bolt. Thus, it becomes essential to the White House to keep enough of their base on their side to ensure that a presidential veto cannot be overridden. Hence the political necessity of trumping the virtues of the surge while downplaying or ignoring lack of success elsewhere. Hence also the need to keep the maximum number of troops in Iraq to mitigate the risk of events worsening.

The result is that the marginal progress in Iraq will be enough to keep Republicans in line with the President. There may be a symbolic troop withdrawal later this year to suggest that real long-term progress is being achieved. Since the surge cannot continue without further extending already overstretched troop deployments, most analysts think that by April of 2008 some force pullback must take place. I am not so sure. Recently the Army met its recruiting goals in part by giving a $20,000 enlistment bonus to new recruits who will join the Army immediately. This might have the effect of allowing force levels to be maintained, or to be drawn down less than expected. In addition, having extended troop deployments a number of times already, there is no reason the Secretary of Defense could not do so again.

In short, during 2008 expect the war to continue at its currently obscene funding levels and expect that any troop withdrawals that do occur will be very modest. The Bush Administration already knows that Iraq will be a failure. They want to run out the clock so the next president will be tarred with its failure. Democrats on the other hand are leery that if they cut off funding now, then when Iraq fails they will be tarred with the failure. Both sides thus find it politically expedient to drag their feet and see how the voters will sort it out next November. The obscene effect of these political dynamics of course is that more American soldiers will end up dead or maimed because neither party wants to be tarred for Iraq’s eventual failure, which all sides tacitly agree is going to happen.

Whatever Democrat wins the White House next November (and I am convinced it will be a Democrat) do not expect that the troops will suddenly be ordered home. First, unless we want to leave massive amount of equipment in control of forces in Iraq, such a withdrawal would be wasteful and counterproductive. Just to execute an orderly withdraw would probably require at least a year. Of course, Iraq is hardly orderly. Our withdrawal would give fresh energy to insurgents over there to increase attacks against us. It will take direct presidential leadership to accomplish our withdrawal in a timely manner. He or she will have to take significant heat however it is executed.

I would be amazed if any next president could get our troops out by 2010. In any event, the next president will have to accommodate the political realities in the region. This means that sizeable number of our troops will be in the area for a long time. I hope that they will at least move away from the cities and toward the borders. I also hope that their mission will become more humanitarian than military. Even as Iraq ceases to be a country, the consequences of our involvement and the necessity to do something (even in a limited fashion) will become inescapable.

Whether we want it or not, Iraq will continue to entangle us militarily and diplomatically for many years to come.

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