Iraq and the reality constraint

Gen. Peter Pace is expected to tell Bush that he has no choice but to cut troop levels dramatically.

Published August 24, 2007 3:01PM (EDT)

So Sen. John Warner wants the president to bring 5,000 U.S. troops home from Iraq by Christmas? That's swell. But as the Los Angeles Times reports today, reality may force a much larger troop withdrawal soon thereafter.

Although the Petraeus report that isn't really a Petraeus report is getting more attention, the military commanders on the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- skeptical of the "surge" from the beginning -- are also analyzing the effect and sustainability of high troop levels in Iraq. And as the Times reports, outgoing Joint Chiefs chairman Peter Pace will likely tell President Bush that keeping more than 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq through 2008 -- there are about 160,000 there now -- would put an intolerable strain on the U.S. military. His solution? The Times says Pace is "expected to advise President Bush to reduce the U.S. force in Iraq next year by almost half."

The difference between the Pace plan and the Warner plan: Warner wants a token number of troops withdrawn quickly, and he's not particularly clear about what happens after that; Pace apparently wants to maintain current troop levels for at least a few more months before beginning much more substantial drawdowns next year.

Will the president take either proposal seriously? Don't count on it. Asked about the Warner proposal Thursday, White House deputy press secretary Gordon Johndroe chided reporters for jumping the gun. "There is a clear process that has been laid out -- President Bush has talked about it numerous times -- and that is, we are to hear from the commanders on the ground and the ambassador. We'll hear from ambassador Crocker. We will hear from Gen. Petraeus. They will make the recommendations. They will testify in front of Congress. And then the president will make a report to Congress."

Johndroe said that it would be "inappropriate" for him to say what options the president might consider once "the process" is over. But when a reporter noted that Bush has rejected calls for a timetable for withdrawal before, Johndroe said: "Yes, and I don't think the president feels any differently about setting a specific timetable for withdrawal."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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