Congress and the president will spend the next week or so debating troop levels in Iraq, but the last sentence in the fourth paragraph of Michael Gordon's piece in the New York Times today tells you all you really need to know: Under Petraeus' plan -- which seems destined to become Congress' plan, too -- the "much-awaited September debate in Congress over Iraq would become a prelude for another set of potentially difficult deliberations next year."
So what's the Petraeus plan? Gordon says Petraeus has told President Bush that he can live with the withdrawal of one U.S. brigade -- about 4,000 soldiers -- beginning in mid-December, with four more brigades departing by August 2008. The result: By next August, U.S. troop levels in Iraq would be back to about 130,000, which is to say, right where they were before the "surge" began in January.
But didn't Defense Secretary Robert Gates say back in January that he and his colleagues were thinking of the "surge" as lasting "a matter of months, not 18 months or two years"?
Yes, he did.
And isn't August 2008 nearly 18 months from January 2007?
Yes, it is. And our troops were going to be "greeted as liberators," Iraqi oil was going to pay for everything, we were seeing the "last throes" of the insurgency two years ago, and the whole war going to last "weeks rather than months."
Four and a half years and 3,763 dead American soldiers into this war, there's really no reason to take seriously any of Bush administration's promises or projections about Iraq.
As Gordon notes, Petraeus' back-to-where-we-started plan is already full of qualifiers and outs even before it has been presented: The timing of the troop drawdown could "vary" depending on "conditions in the country" and could be "adjusted or delayed if violence increases." But let's assume for a moment that the Petraeus plan is really a plan and that, by August 2008, we really do see troop levels back to where they were in January 2006. What does that get us? That's the question that Petraeus, and anyone else advocating any variation of a stay-the-course plan, should have to answer today. What do we get out of keeping 160,000 or 130,000 of our troops in Iraq and exposed to deadly attacks on a daily basis?
Does that get us "victory"? Does it transform Iraq into a "free nation that can govern itself, sustain itself, and defend itself"? That sure doesn't seem like the kind of promise Petraeus is willing to make. As Gordon predicts, Petraeus will tell Congress that we've got to stay in Iraq because the situation there is "in flux"; it's premature to make any decisions about a more serious troop withdrawal; let's talk again in March 2008. We'll look then toward August 2008, and then we'll be talking about the summer of 2009, when the Petraeus plan is projecting something called "sustainable security" in Iraq.
Is that what we get? "Sustainable security"? Shortly after the president unveiled his "surge" strategy earlier this year, he said that the point of it was to provide "enough space so that the Iraqi government can meet certain benchmarks or certain requirements for a unity government to survive and for the country to be strong." Will those benchmarks be met by March 2008? By August 2008? By the summer of 2009? If Petraeus and his enablers can't say that they will, then somebody's got to tell us again why it is that our troops need to stay. And if they can make that kind of promise -- if they can say that the Iraqis will have used their "breathing space" to accomplish something like political reconciliation by then -- then somebody's going to have to tell us why we should believe them this time around.