In Iraq Forever

Foolish liberals. Just days after President Bush announced in January that he would deploy an additional 21,500 troops to Iraq as a temporary "surge," liberals came up with a different buzzword. "Democrats oppose escalation of the war," newly elected House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told a cheering throng of supporters in San Francisco. "Let me repeat that: Democrats oppose escalation of the war." The obvious political gambit was to stoke public dissatisfaction and leverage it to de-escalate the war.

It was a smart choice of words. The public grew increasingly restive over Iraq; "escalation" added an unsubtle reminder of Vietnam. But it didn’t work. In September Bush announced that the "surge" would end in the summer of 2008. He portrayed himself as a stern commander in chief who would de-escalate the war "on success." And he claimed victory in the war was still possible while allowing nervous Republicans to point to the exits.

The Democrats failed on every front. Most obviously, the war goes on; 812 American troops died between Bush’s two speeches, along with at least 12,400 Iraqis. Less obviously, even on the margins of congressional debate, anti-war forces lost ground. Every war-funding bill passed without a timetable for withdrawal.

Climactic testimony from Gen. David H. Petraeus devolved into a slog over tactics rather than a vivid demonstration that not even a supremely talented general can redeem this war.

Worse yet, buried within Bush’s Sept. 13 speech was a belated recognition of the most salient fact of the entire war: Success in Iraq "will require U.S. political, economic, and security engagement that extends beyond my presidency." Bush declared himself "ready to begin … an enduring relationship." It was a casual declaration of what has been clear for months: The Bush administration is setting the stage for a costly commitment to keep a force in Iraq for decades to come, a commitment that will be exceedingly difficult for Bush’s successors to abridge or annul.

The war in Iraq can sometimes feel like a military commitment in search of a rationale. Yet there has never been any doubt among insiders that the Bush administration intended Iraq to become an outpost of U.S. power projection throughout the Middle East. "A future Iraq would be a major player in and partner of the U.S. with regard to the U.S.’ security strategy and presence in the Middle East," recalls Paul Pillar, who from 2001 until 2006 was the U.S. intelligence community’s chief Mideast analyst. "This wasn’t going to be just an altruistic endeavor -- ‘we’ll overthrow Saddam and then politely bow out.' ... That was never envisioned."

Without clear guidance from the Defense Department about the duration of their stay in Iraq, U.S. military commanders began constructing enormous bases capable of garrisoning numerous brigades for an indefinite period. By last year, four of them had sprung up along strategically important points throughout Iraq: in Balad, Tallil, Rawah, and Baghdad. The complex surrounding Baghdad International Airport resembles a county rather than a military base, comprising five camps connected in an efficient confederation and passable through a system of buses over about 25 square miles.

In other words, Bush’s recent statement about an enduring relationship was a belated recognition of long-emerging facts on the ground. In June, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, no great fan of the war, cautioned against seeking a decisive end to the mission. Praising the "Korea model," Gates looked to "a mutually agreed arrangement whereby we have a long and enduring presence." Similarly, Petraeus offered Congress a sketch for reducing troops until five army brigades -- 15,000 to 25,000 soldiers -- remain. In a little-noticed bit of testimony, Petraeus also said the government of Nouri al-Maliki has indicated that after 2008 it would like to "negotiate a long-term security agreement," known as a Status of Forces Agreement. A SOFA is the basic pact establishing the legal terms of garrisoning U.S. forces overseas for the long haul. In September, the Congressional Budget Office estimated, conservatively, that an indefinite presence would cost between $4 billion and $10 billion annually.

The number of Iraqis who want U.S. troops in their country indefinitely is statistically insignificant, according to a September poll conducted by ABC News and the BBC. But as long as Iraqis fear for their lives and the Iraqi government fears for its hold on power, a coterie of Iraqi officials is likely to seek a U.S. security guarantee. "Beyond the immediate term … we’ll need a continuing U.S. presence, and that is a period where a SOFA will be essential," explains Rend al-Rahim Francke, Iraq’s ambassador to the U.S. during Iyad Allawi’s interim government. While she is uncomfortable with an indefinite U.S. deployment, she adds, "The U.S. has a long-term presence in Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman, and this presence has not been questioned."

The assumption made by advocates of an enduring U.S. presence in Iraq is that the U.S. can improve security to the point where a reduced American presence would no longer be provocative to Iraqis. American advisers in Iraq, says one senior U.S. Army officer with extensive experience there, "can be as uncontroversial as their role in other parts of the world … American combat forces are not going to win the war in Iraq. Full stop. I believe it can be won with Iraqi security forces, and we can increase the chance of that happening with some number of American combat advisers."

Yet the experience of the last four years suggests that anger at the U.S. presence is a durable commodity both in and out of Iraq. "Any extended U.S. force presence, even a reduced one, clearly validates the al-Qaeda storyline," says Jeffrey Record, a professor of strategy at the Air War College in Alabama. "Every Arab Tom, Dick, and Harry who wants to express outrage at this crusader intrusion into the Arab heartland is going to go after those forces, as we are seeing now." If so, that renders Petraeus’ draw-down plan untenable: Five Army brigades is too large a force to merely monitor Iraqi forces, as Petraeus’ plan envisioned, yet it’s vastly too small to make a difference if those Iraqi forces are overwhelmed.

The U.S. has real interests in Iraq -- ensuring a stable flow of oil, preventing a regional conflagration, and arresting the spread of al-Qaeda, among others. Yet the U.S. presence in Iraq has consistently proven counterproductive to its aims. American interests, says Paul Pillar, are "not served enough to a degree that outweighs the negatives of our presence: continuing Iraqi casualties, the image of the U.S. occupying a foreign land unjustly, and U.S. troops being caught in the crossfire."

Perversely, Bush, in his final months in office, operates according to the political logic of an Iraqi insurgent: He wins by not obviously losing. It’s unclear whether the Democrats have an effective response. According to Jim Manley, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s spokesman, the strategy over the coming year will be to relentlessly schedule war-related legislation until, closer to the election, Republicans yield to "a real change in policy, including bringing our troops home as quickly as possible."

But how many of them will actually come home is another open question. So far, the major Democratic presidential contenders have only pledged to bring home combat forces, while they equivocate on a residual presence. Manley suggests that Bush’s plans for Iraq amount to little more than "just leaving it for the next president to deal with." If Bush can hold the line on Iraq through 2008, he’ll have gone a long way toward ensuring that his vision of long-term troops in Baghdad can be realized. After all, as the senior Army officer says, "The purpose of the U.S. Army is not just to fight and win the nation’s wars. It is the purpose of the Army, having won that war, to continue to occupy that country and stay in that region so as to not have to go to war there again." Someone should tell the liberals.