The president will try to sell his new Iraq plan this week by describing a series of benchmarks the Iraqi government must meet along the way to standing up for itself. The problems with the sell job: 1) Bush can't make the benchmarks too hard or fast without reversing his long-standing opposition to "arbitrary timelines"; 2) anything short of "or else" benchmarks will sound a lot like the "stand up, stand down" rhetoric we've all heard too often before; and 3) no matter what Bush says about his plan, it isn't what the American people want -- a way out of Iraq sooner rather than later.
That last point was underscored over the weekend by Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the new day-to-day commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. Odierno told reporters that, even after the U.S. sends a "surge" of additional troops into Baghdad, it's going to take "two or three years" for the United States to accomplish even its limited goals for Iraq. "The mission now is to defeat the ... insurgency and to train Iraqi security forces," Odierno said. "Over time, we can accomplish the mission. That time I put two or three years from now. The issue becomes, are we willing to wait two or three years or do we want to speed it up?"
From the context of his remarks, it's pretty clear that what Odierno meant by "speed it up" was not "send more troops" but "bring them home." "Unfortunately what we're starting to show some lack of is patience," he said. "I think it's too important not to have patience."
One could argue that the American people have shown a good deal of patience with the president and his war already. As the war began, Dick Cheney was telling folks that he expected it to last "weeks rather than months." Nearly four years and what seems like a lifetime of "critical next six months" later, it's a lot to ask anyone for another two or three years -- particularly when that could mean that a few thousand more American troops will join the more than 3,000 who have been killed in the war already.
Which brings us back to the president's predicament. If his "surge" were really a "surge" -- a plan to send a force to Iraq so huge that victory would be inevitable and quick -- there's a chance that the American people might get behind it as some kind of last best hope. But that's not what Bush has in mind. Instead, the president is reportedly looking at sending something like 20,000 more troops. That's more than most Democrats -- or more Americans -- are interested in supporting, and it's probably not enough for a surge supporter like John McCain. Writing in the Washington Post over the weekend, McCain said: "The worst of all worlds would be a small, short surge of U.S. forces. We have tried small surges, and they have been ineffective because our commanders lacked the forces necessary to hold territory after it was cleared. Violence, which fell dramatically while U.S. forces were present, spiked as soon as they were gone. Any new surge needs to provide enough American troops to hold the areas on their own."
If Bush loses McCain on the surge, who does he have left? The Democratic leaders in Congress have already said they won't support the surge, and Robert Novak says that the White House is going to have a hard time drumming up support from more than about a dozen GOP senators. Maybe Bush doesn't need the Senate -- Democrats like Joe Biden seem resigned to the idea that there's nothing they can do to stop Bush from running the war however he wants -- but can the president really keep sending more troops to Iraq without support from the American people or their elected representatives? And how can he possibly get that support unless the "way forward" he's about to unveil is more clearly the "way out" than it's shaping up to be now?