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Playing for Time: Hard Choices in Iraq

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Is there anyone out there who did not expect General David Petraeus to ask Congress for more time in Iraq based on surge results that, while mixed, give us some encouragement that the situation in Baghdad has improved in a measured way? No one? Not surprising.

The distinguished general says we can implement significant reductions of troops to the pre-surge level by the end of next summer. Let's understand him clearly. The surge, which the president announced this past January and started full implementation in March, not July, as the administration now claims, was supposed to last six months and then culminate in a report to the Congress at the end of the six month period -- September. No wonder this administration dislikes timetables -- they can't keep their own. And it was made clear by Democrats and some Republicans at that time that the six month surge period results could or would be the last chance before Congress would pursue a new all-out effort to enact a timetable for withdrawing our troops or at least enact benchmarks tied to subsequent troop withdrawals.

Last week, General Petraeus assured Congress that "no one wants to stay in Iraq forever." I would remind the general that the premise of his statement here is not the basis of even a credible discussion of this issue, let alone a debate. The general, on behalf of the Bush administration, is attempting to redefine the very premise of the surge and even the premise of our being in Iraq itself. It was never a choice between staying in Iraq forever vs. staying there five years, 10 years, or any number higher than 4 1/2 years. No, it was a choice of six months or six weeks, the latter being the very authoritative claim of Vice President Cheney. In addition, if we really objectively evaluate the surge, we must consider reports from coverage on the ground that the progress in Anwar province was actually achieved even before the surge commenced.

We all want the surge to work, and we are all very pleased that there is some real measurable progress being made in some areas as a result of the increased American troop presence. But the president's position leaves no room for flexibility or discussion -- again, not a surprise. The president's attitude seems clear. If the surge fails, we stay; if the surge succeeds, we stay. Either way, we stay. Consequently, the only way to change the course is for him to go. He'll be home before our troops will, and that's at least another 16 months.

And now, The Wall Street Journal reports that we're building a new military base on the border of Iran and Iraq. That base will not be there to monitor and enforce cross border immigration activities, as we have no experience in that area. That base is being built to facilitate possible new military initiatives in that region and to compliment the new embassy we are now completing in Baghdad, our largest anywhere in the world. And if we are still at pre-surge troop levels this time next year (the general's promise in his testimony), then President Bush can be satisfied in knowing that we will be forcefully in Iraq for at least two years past his presidency -- by my count that would make a total of eight years, twice as long as World War II.

Here is the reality. Before the surge, we had close to 140,000 troops in Iraq. The surge added an additional 30,000 troops. According to the Petraeus formula, by the end of next summer we could withdraw down our troops back to the very same level we started with when debate over the surge began. In essence, a "bait and switch" that now puts off almost another year to deal with the troop level that stimulated the January debate in the first place. That's "playing for time" -- exactly what President Bush is quoted in the new book, Dead Certain, as saying he was attempting to do with the surge project.

And it gets worse. The president now says that because of the "success of the surge" we can now withdraw troops down to the pre-surge level by the end of next summer." What the president does not say is that the Pentagon was planning to do that, anyway, because the military leaders in the country had already insisted that the troop levels the president was proposing in the surge could not be sustained beyond next summer. That's not just "bait and switch" -- that's just a direct manipulation of what the facts are.

What the Bush administration has done in Iraq unfortunately cannot be undone in six months or even a year or by Inauguration Day in 2009. We can't leave now. It's too much of a mess, and it's our mess -- not the mess of a true coalition of countries that we should have forged. We can either re-deploy our troops back to perimeter areas but remain to prevent a regional war or an outright Iranian take over and therein force the Iraq citizenry to step up on their own, or we can continue the course as is and have our troops remain directly embroiled in the cross hairs of a sectarian civil war with as many as four to seven American troops killed every few days. Ultimately, the president will get his wish. We have to stay, despite my plea for some benchmark incentives to force the Iraqi government to act on the necessary political and reconciliation progress so desperately needed to justify our continued support of close to 10 billion dollars per month. But the Republicans, as a party and particularly as candidates up for re-election, will pay a heavy price for this Iraq mess -- probably in just over one year from now, unless they can push back the timetable on that event as well.

Carl Jeffers is a Seattle- and Los Angeles-based columnist, political analyst and lecturer. He hosts a KIRO-AM talk show program, ON FIRE with Carl Jeffers, and he is a guest host for Clear Channel Radio and Air America Radio as well. Jeffers is also a national TV political commentator and is also an editorial contributor to The Seattle Times. E-mail: cjintel@juno.com

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