I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so almost a year and a half ago that the Bush administration was about to abandon its "stay the course" policy in Iraq. You want proof? Then read the column I wrote in The Hill on June 22, 2005, shortly after returning from two weeks in Iraq. Except for the outdated numbers of U.S. military deaths and casualties and the references to the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing and President Bush's scheduled meetings and speech, it could have been written yesterday and would have been just as timely. Here's the column, which ran under the headline, "Iraq: A new course?"
If you get the feeling, as I do, that something big is in the works concerning U.S. policy in Iraq, you're probably right.
And if it is, whether it's expanding the U.S. military presence, urging other countries to take on a bigger role, instituting new procedures for treatment of imprisoned suspected terrorists or putting pressure on the new Iraqi government to get its act together, the future course of America's greatest projection of power since Vietnam should become clearer tomorrow morning.
That's when the Senate Armed Services Committee will ask Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to explain how he plans to bring a successful end of a conflict that many Americans are beginning to have serious doubts about, just as they did about Vietnam nearly 40 years ago.
Ironically, those doubts have emerged full force in a week when President Bush holds his first meeting with both the prime minister of Iraq and the premier of Vietnam, and just before he makes a major speech next week on the anniversary of the transfer of power to the new Iraqi government.
The hearing comes amid growing concern in Congress by Democrats and Republicans alike about the course of the war a little more than two years after the U.S.-led coalition toppled Saddam Hussein. A growing number of members are pressing the administration to set a timetable for withdrawal of American troops as the U.S. military death toll exceeds 1,700, with more than 11,000 wounded.
It also comes as Bush himself has admitted that the going is "tough" in Iraq and that Vice President Cheney may have been overoptimistic when he recently said the insurgency is "in its last throes."
The Bush administration will send an all-star lineup to Capitol Hill tomorrow. The senators will hear from -- and undoubtedly ask tough questions of -- Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of STaff, as well as the two commanders respoonsible for Iraq and Afghanistan, Gens. John Abizaid and George Casey Jr. The latter two were added at the last minute, making it the first time the committee has heard from all four at the same time.
Chairman John Warner (R-Va.) has become increasingly critical of the administration's handling of Iraq policy, as has ranking member Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who said last week that, while he disagrees with setting a timetable for withdrawal now, he would favor it if the Iraqi government fails to meet its deadline for August elections. It will be interesting to see what three Republican senators -- John McCain (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and John Thune (S.D.) have to say as well.
Rumsfeld's precedessor, former Pentagon chief and Republican senator from Maine, William Cohen, told me Sunday that he believes Bush has only about a year before he will have to show that real progress is being made in Iraq so that he can start bringing American troops home. Otherwise, Republicans could be faced with big losses in next year's midterm elections.
It's unwise and impossible to predict what new directions in the next phase of the war in Iraq will become obvious tomorrow. But I wouldn't be surprised if the hearing sets the stage for Bush to call for additional troops to combat the influx of insurgents and foreign Islamic fighters in the Sunni Triangle and to fill the gap in bringing Iraqi security forces up to speed.
As Gen. Casey told me when I was in Iraq in April, if he needs more troops, he'll ask for them. I suspect he's about ready to.
Well, as I said, I told you so, even if I was about a year and a half early.
One final note: I had dinner with Gen. Casey on Oct. 10, a day before he returned to Iraq after meeting with President Bush, Rumsfeld and top military leaders here, and asked him if he had any reason for optimism about the course of the war in Iraq. He described himself as a very cautious optimist, but also a realist, and made it clear, as he did in his Oct. 24 news conference in Baghdad, that staying the course is no longer the course the U.S. will follow in Iraq.