Outside editorial: Will there be escalation or contraction in Iraq by 2008?

Posted: Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The following editorial first appeared in the Sacramento Bee:

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Now the lines are clear and the American people have a choice on Iraq policy.

The choice is not whether or not to continue the Bush administration's current surge of more than 28,000 additional troops into Iraq. Both the House and Senate have passed supplemental spending bills providing funds for the surge.

The choice concerns what happens after that. Will a post-surge policy be one of continued escalation or one of contraction? If the surge succeeds in stabilizing Baghdad and the Anbar province west of Baghdad by late summer, as Gen. David Petraeus hopes, what's the plan? And if it doesn't succeed, what then?

The new majorities in the House and Senate support a post-surge policy of contraction. The Senate's bill, approved Thursday on a 51-47 vote, requires the president to send Congress a plan for drawdown of U.S. combat brigades with a goal of completing redeployment by April 2008. The House bill passed last week sets a binding timeline for U.S. troop withdrawal by Sept. 2008.

Now a conference committee will have to negotiate a final bill. For both houses, the agenda will shift by the first quarter of 2008 to questions of how to move combat forces out of Iraq responsibly.

To date, President Bush has followed a policy of unlimited U.S. commitment in Iraq. U.S. troop strength in Iraq will reach 170,000 with the surge; that's up from a low of 115,000 troops in February 2004. Bush's stated goal remains the creation of a stable, democratic Iraq, and he said Wednesday, "When that day comes, our forces can come home." He has said he will veto any bill that includes a timeline for troop withdrawal.

So the nation is at a crossroads.

A Bush veto means no emergency wartime funding for the war in Iraq going forward. If the president makes good on his threat - and there is no reason to doubt that he will - he and the Congress will have to start at ground zero to negotiate a compromise.

The congressional bills do not call for precipitous withdrawal. They give the surge time to stabilize the situation (or not) and for regional diplomatic initiatives to take place to prevent a widening of the Iraq civil war to neighboring countries, as the Iraq Study Group recommended last December.

Both bills serve the useful purpose of putting Iraqis on notice and giving them time to prepare. As the Iraq Study Group report said, it is time for Iraqis to know that the United States will draw down U.S. combat forces even if the Iraqi government does not implement planned changes: "America's other security needs and the future of our military cannot be made hostage to the actions or inactions of the Iraqi government."

All options at this stage are less than ideal, a point that the Iraq Study Group report underscored. It concluded that reducing our combat troop commitments in Iraq, "undeniably creates risks, but leaving those forces tied down in Iraq indefinitely creates its own set of security risks."

The congressional funding bills should be seen as a mechanism for forcing a long overdue weighing of those risks, a consideration of unpalatable but inescapable alternatives.

At the moment, both Congress and the president seem intent on winning a war of rhetoric. By passing these supplemental appropriations bills, Congress has signaled that the current open-ended commitment, upping the ante at each new decision point, is no longer acceptable. The president insists that the issue centers on presidential authority in wartime and support for the troops.

That impasse leaves plenty of room for Bush and the Democratic majority in Congress to forge bipartisan agreement on a drawdown of U.S. combat troops and how best to reposition U.S. forces to contain the Iraq conflict - while moving non-war-related appropriations to a separate bill. Let the negotiations begin.

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