In Iraq, Patience is Not a Policy

When he was the Democratic leader in the Senate, George Mitchell ruefully reflected that his job had given him "the best-developed patience muscle in Washington." The war in Iraq has done similar things for the rest of us. But the strengthening program is by no means done. Gen. David Petraeus was on Capitol Hill this week explaining why we need to keep on exercising forbearance, and keep on, and keep on.

By his reckoning, and that of Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, the administration’s policy of escalation has been a success. Violence has come down, political reconciliation is underway, and the Iraqi government is showing more initiative. Heck, Crocker marveled, you even see the newly designed Iraqi flag in all parts of the country, not just some.

We poured in more troops, we accomplished what we set out to do, and now we can start bringing our troops home — which, after all, was the whole point of the surge announced by President Bush 15 months ago. Right? Wrong. It turns out that we have accomplished only enough to allow us to remain in Iraq indefinitely with more forces than we had when the surge began.

Where is Goldilocks when we need her? According to the administration, the circumstances for leaving are always too hot or too cold, but never just right. Petraeus thinks withdrawals should cease in July, at which time there will still be 140,000 American troops in Iraq — compared to about 132,000 when Bush embarked on this course.

The end of the drawdown is commonly referred to as a "pause" but it looks more like a full stop. Petraeus is not willing to commit to reduce troop strength even by September, more than a year and a half after the escalation began. "Withdrawing too many forces too quickly," he insists, "could jeopardize the progress of the past year." All he offers come September — grudgingly — is a promise to "commence a process of assessment" to see if he might be willing to trim the numbers just a bit.

What this illustrates is that no matter what happens in Iraq, the Bush policy is always the same: stay the course. Says Brookings Institution national security analyst Ivo Daalder, "First we couldn’t withdraw because things were bad. Then we couldn’t withdraw because things were getting better. Now we can’t withdraw because things might get worse."

No one in the administration camp is willing to reject an open-ended commitment. Supporters of John McCain complain Democrats have distorted his declaration that he would be willing to stay in Iraq 100 years — since he said that "would be fine with me" only "as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed."

Fair enough. So how long would he be willing to stay as long as Americans are being injured, harmed, wounded and killed? Apparently he is not willing to put any expiration date on our obligation. Sound policy, he told a Veterans of Foreign Wars audience in Kansas City this week, "will require that we keep a sufficient level of American forces in Iraq until security conditions are such that our commanders on the ground recommend otherwise."

Well, suppose security conditions never reach the desired point — which, judging from the recent eruption of violence, is entirely possible. Then what? McCain offers no option except continuing the fight — no matter how long it takes, no matter how bloody it is, no matter the long-term damage to the Army, no matter how slow the political progress, no matter how much it costs.

His Democratic rivals propose to begin a deliberate, phased withdrawal in 2009. To let this war go on for six full years before we finally begin turning it over to the Iraqis suggests, if anything, an excess of patience. Yet McCain portrays such talk as "reckless and irresponsible."

If so, that’s only because the surge has yet to produce the dramatic overall progress that its supporters envisioned at the start. Petraeus says we have to stay because the gains are "fragile and reversible." And he acknowledged, "We haven’t turned any corners. We haven’t seen any lights at the end of the tunnel."

We may never. In that case, McCain and his allies are prepared to keep stumbling through the dark.