"Is the United States now going to cut and run in Iraq?" asks Bronwen Maddox, foreign editor of the London Times.
While the answer from President Bush remains a defiant "No!" the question is now being raised by the most hawkish of his backers. And understandably so. For John McCain’s call for sending 10,000 more troops to Iraq has been met with polite silence, while all signals out of this city point to withdrawal, beginning in 2006, of scores of thousands of U.S. troops, whether the insurgency has been defeated or not, whether an Iraqi democracy is assured or not.
Consider these events of Thanksgiving week:
On Sunday, Nov. 20, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld confirmed that Gen. George Casey, U.S. commander in Iraq, had submitted plans for a reduction of U.S. forces from the present 160,000 to fewer than 100,000 by the end of 2006. When asked if that was possible, Rumsfeld, replied, "Yes, that’s possible."
On Monday, 100 Sunni, Shia and Kurd leaders from Iraq met in Cairo and called for a timetable for U.S. withdrawal.
Wednesday, the Washington Post led the paper with a story on Casey’s plan to withdraw the 60,000 and Secretary of State Condi Rice told Fox News we need not maintain present troop levels "very much longer," as Iraqi forces, which now number 200,000, are "stepping up" to the job. A gradual pullout could "come fairly soon," said Rice, the number of troops "is clearly going to come down." She added, "I think that is how the president will want to look at this."
By Thursday, the Pentagon confirmed that troops would be coming home after the December elections and, if conditions improve, U.S. forces could be drawn down by 60,000 before the end of 2006. Said Fred Barnes of the hawkish Weekly Standard, "These events are ominous … they suggest that troop removal has superseded victory as the primary American concern." Indeed, they do.
Moreover, our principal coalition partners after the Brits are coming out. Silvio Berlusconi has said Italy’s 3,000 troops may be home by the end of 2006. South Korea is pulling out a third of its contingent. Polish forces, cut from 2,400 to 1,400 in 2005, may soon fall below 1,000.
If no more troops are going in, and the only question is, how many U.S. and coalition troops are coming out, starting after the December elections, the conclusion seems inescapable: The United States is disengaging from the Iraq war before victory is at hand, or even in sight. Hence, a defeat, not of American arms, but of the U.S. policy in Iraq, is now a distinct possibility.
The signs America has had enough are everywhere. Bill Clinton now calls the war a "big mistake," an opinion shared by 60 percent of the nation. 39 Senate Democrats voted for an exit strategy, with timetables. Half the country wants withdrawals to begin. Only a third of the nation approves of Bush’s war leadership, while 42 percent, in a Pew poll, want America to start minding her own business.
Bush has three years left, but the time is approaching when debate on a new U.S. foreign policy for the post-Bush era must begin. One lesson from this war is already clear: Americans will not long support spilling the blood of their soldier sons in a war for ideals like democracy in the Arab world unless they are convinced national security or U.S. vital interests are imperiled.
Months back, as opponents of the war became the majority, I predicted a Gene McCarthy would rise to lead the antiwar movement. No one expected it to be Rep. John Murtha, a combat veteran with 37 years in Marine Corps service. But Murtha’s emotional call for withdrawal has proven a catalyst for Congress and the country.
The argument suddenly seems over and the nation appears to have reached a consensus: earliest possible withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, consistent with the avoidance of a strategic disaster.
But here is the rub: We are not going to get out of Iraq without suffering terrible consequences for having gone in. And when we come out, we no longer control what goes on within.
Once we depart, there is no guarantee the insurgents will be defeated, no guarantee that thousands of those who cast their lot with us will not be massacred, no guarantee Iraq will remain one nation, no guarantee there will not be chaos and civil war.
There is no guarantee that after having invested $200 to $300 billion and the lives of thousands of splendid young Americans, we will not end up with an Iraq that is a strategic ally of Iran and a Sunni Triangle that is a base camp and training camp for terrorists larger than the one we destroyed in Afghanistan.
The impending U.S. troop withdrawals are a roll of the dice, demanded by the American people and now acceded to by the Bush administration. No one can know for sure what the dice will deliver.