As it happens, this Rosh Hashanah week is indeed the beginning of a new year for U.S. policy in Iraq. The key moments come this week, when General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker testify to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, followed by Bush’s own written report to Congress.
Petraeus’s testimony on the military situation, as opposed to Crocker’s on political reconciliation, will tilt positive. “I see tangible progress,” he might say. “Iraqi security elements are being rebuilt from the ground up. There are reasons for optimism. Momentum has gathered in recent months.” The depressing thing, and the reason a lot of people will be skeptical, is that he already did say exactly that about Iraq—three years ago.
But he can point out that political murders of civilians in Baghdad and suicide bombings have been reduced substantially, that U.S. military deaths are down, and that Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia’s new truce is helpful. And he will surely talk about the best change of all, the deus ex machina that has suddenly turned the Sunnis in Anbar province into our anti–al Qaeda allies, and whether that might plausibly be replicated elsewhere.
After Bush last week made a feint toward declaring victory and starting to pull out U.S. forces, Petraeus will undoubtedly make troop withdrawal, beginning very modestly this winter, semi-official policy. Which is not to say that partisan name-calling will end. The pace of withdrawal will continue to be argued ferociously, and Democrats will, quite rightly, let no one forget whose mess Iraq is. Disagreement—between Democrats and Republicans, among Democratic presidential candidates—will be exaggerated for political effect.
Yet there is in fact on Iraq a rough bipartisan consensus that dare not speak its name, thanks both to the imperatives of election-year politics and to the fact that the realistic options are so horribly limited. Just four of the seventeen presidential candidates are in favor of immediate and total withdrawal, and only one wants to increase troop levels—which more or less reflects the split of national sentiment. And the Democratic leadership is softening on its demand for a fixed troop-withdrawal deadline in order to forge a compromise bill that could attract enough Republican votes to form a filibuster-proof supermajority.
One of the bipartisan schemes being bruited would turn the Iraq Study Group’s plan into law. Fine, as far as it goes, but that document is now nine months old. Our leaders would do well to update it with the findings and recommendations in two new, bracingly smart, clear-eyed reports by Anthony Cordesman, the military and geopolitical strategy éminence grise, based on his two-week trip to Iraq in July. In the first, “The Tenuous Case for Strategic Patience in Iraq,” he says that because the occupation was so terribly handled, we still have “a moral and ethical” obligation to the Iraqi people. And simply as a logistical task, he estimates, the withdrawal of U.S. troops and matériel will easily take a year, maybe longer. And in “America’s Last Chance in Iraq,” published last week, Cordesman says that because “the odds of any form of enduring success are even at best…the Bush Administration…needs to present a credible ‘Plan B’…for the contingency where Iraq’s leaders do not move forward.”
President Bush, Cordesman writes, must stop “exaggerating progress and understating risks, relying on rhetoric and empty slogans.” In other words, it’s time for our tragic cheerleader-in-chief, a president allergic to pessimism or doubt, to suck it up and soberly admit that this glass really is half empty, and isn’t going to fill up no matter how hard we wish and hope. That’s what grown-ups—daddies, mommies, all of us—do.