Although George W. Bush has long resisted calls for anything approaching a timeline for withdrawing troops from Iraq, his administration is suddenly full of talk about a dramatic drawdown early next year. Maybe all the talk is real, or maybe it's just politics, domestic and foreign -- a sop to Americans who think the president deliberately misled them into war, and a stick to push the Iraqis forward on completing a constitution and taking over their own defense.
Whatever the motivation for the sudden talk about a troop withdrawal, the real question is whether a significant reduction in the U.S. military presence is even a possibility. Yes, the United States could simply pull back a majority of its troops, the consequences be damned. But if the White House is following Colin Powell's Pottery Barn rule -- "You break it, you own it" -- and if it's serious about building a democracy rather than just eliminating the threat of WMD that didn't exist, it can't and won't do that.
So what can the White House do? Newsweek says that the Pentagon has come up with a plan to reduce U.S. troop levels from about 138,000 today to about 80,000 by the middle of 2006 and down to between 40,000 and 60,000 by the end of that year. Is the plan realistic? Who knows? Troop levels will likely increase rather than decrease later this year, when Iraqis are scheduled to go to the polls. And after that? It all depends -- on the ability of Iraqi security forces, on the strength of the insurgency, on the possibility that civil war could erupt before or after American troops begin to leave. As U.S. News & World Report puts it, predicting troop levels is little more than a "guessing game" now, full of what Donald Rumsfeld would call "known unknowns" and "unknown unknowns."
There are two "known knowns," however. First, the administration has been off the mark in talking about troop reductions before: Rumsfeld himself used to predict that the U.S. presence in Iraq would be down to 30,000 troops by the end of 2003 -- a number so low, as things have played out, that Pentagon planners aren't even hoping to attain it by the end of 2006. Second, whenever the withdrawal begins, it will come too late for far too many U.S. families. Seven Marines were killed in western Iraq Monday, raising the U.S. death toll so far to 1,806.