The Democrats' Iraq Calculation

The interesting thing about the plan that leading Democrats now advocate for Iraq is that its essential element is the same as the essential element of the plan pursued by those we are fighting. It is that we withdraw.

Now, if the Democrats’ plan is not domestic partisan posturing, but a calculation predicated on the national interest, there are at least three possible explanations for this remarkable coincidence.

One is that the fighting in Iraq now (as opposed to the original and now irreversible decision to invade) is just a big mistake, that the United States and those attacking us have no fundamental conflicts of interest and that if we simply disengage, the net result will be that things go well for both us and them.

A second possibility is that the Democrats are mistaken: If we withdraw, the net result will be things go well for them and bad for us. A third possibility is that our enemies are mistaken: If we withdraw, the net result will be things go well for us and bad for them.
Sen. Hillary Clinton, who wants to be commander in chief, makes the case for possibility three. When Gen. David Petraeus testified in the Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, she called for bringing our troops home.

"The administration and supporters of the administration’s policy often talk about the costs of leaving Iraq, yet ignore the greater costs of continuing the same failed policy," she said. "It’s time to begin an orderly process of withdrawing our troops, start rebuilding our military and focusing on challenges posed by Afghanistan, global terrorist groups and other problems that confront America."

Yet, since the 2006 elections, at least two ostensibly non-political authorities in the U.S. government have argued that withdrawing from Iraq would be bad for us. These authorities are the U.S. intelligence community and the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus.

In a National Intelligence Estimate completed in January 2007, before the troop surge, the intelligence community painted a dire picture of what would happen if the United States withdrew within 12 to 18 months.

"If such a rapid withdrawal were to take place," said the NIE, "we judge that the ISF (Iraqi Security Forces) would be unlikely to survive as a non-sectarian national institution; neighboring countries — invited by Iraqi factions or unilaterally — might intervene openly in the conflict; massive civilian casualties and forced population displacement would be probable; AQI (al-Qaida in Iraq) would attempt to use parts of the country — particularly al-Anbar province — to plan increased attacks in and outside Iraq; and spiraling violence and political disarray in Iraq, along with Kurdish moves to control Kirkuk and strengthen autonomy, could prompt Turkey to launch a military incursion."

In another NIE completed in August, after the surge had reached full force but before it had long to work, the intelligence community said that there had been "measurable but uneven improvements in Iraq’s security situation since our last National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq."

It warned, however, of the consequences of even changing the mission of U.S. forces in Iraq. "We assess," it said, "that changing the mission of Coalition forces from a primarily counterinsurgency and stabilization role to a primary combat support role for Iraqi forces and counterterrorist operations to prevent AQI from establishing a safe haven would erode security gains achieved thus far."

A new NIE completed last week has not been publicly released. But The New York Times, relying on descriptions from "American officials on both sides of the Iraq debate," reported that it "cites significant security improvements and progress toward healing sectarian rifts, but concludes that security remains fragile and terrorist groups remain capable of initiating large attacks."

The Times could not determine whether the NIE included a "detailed discussion of what might happen" if U.S. withdrawals continued beyond those scheduled. But in his testimony, Petreaus called for suspending withdrawals after those already scheduled and warned that "performing the necessary tasks in Iraq will require sizable conventional forces as well as special operations forces and advisor teams."

Now, Sen. Clinton and like-minded Democrats could argue that the surge has succeeded to such a degree that the warning the intelligence community made last year about withdrawing from Iraq no longer applies. They could argue, in effect: We have already won and can safely come home.

But they are not arguing that. Sen. Clinton said on ABC’s "Good Morning America" this week that "clearly, the surge hasn’t worked." That puts Democrats in the peculiar position of seeking the same movement of our troops those fighting us seek: a withdrawal. The only difference is that those fighting us appear more willing than the Democrats to accept what our military and intelligence leaders assess would be the likely consequences of that maneuver.