In a speech on the Senate floor breaking with President Bush on Iraq, Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) called for a "constructive bi-partisan strategy" on Iraq. In fact, such a strategy for the next stage of the conflict is now within sight. It melds the efforts of the bi-partisan Iraq Study Group (ISG), the current thinking of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and, perhaps surprisingly, the Democratic proposals in the Iraq Supplemental Appropriations bill vetoed by the President.
The ISG called for gradually withdrawing U.S. combat forces and concentrating on training Iraqi forces and fighting al-Qaida. The administration ignored this and instead concentrated on the ISG's lukewarm acceptance of a limited surge. But the ISG recommendations are included in one of several pieces of legislation now pending in Congress
According to a front-page story in the July 3, 2007 edition of the Wall Street Journal, Secretary Gates is looking for a bi-partisan compromise on Iraq. That compromise would involve a reduction and redeployment of American forces from Iraq that would leave a residual force on several large bases. These forces would train Iraqi troops, fight al-Qaida and serve as a rapid reaction force to assist Iraqi security forces. It is unclear if this is being done out of strategy or necessity. As the article notes, the current force level of 21 combat brigades cannot be maintained beyond next Spring without draconian measures such as another extension of troop tours or a major National Guard call up. But the Gates plan would leave a large long term U.S. military presence in Iraq, something that others will oppose.
What may be surprising is that, except for the starting date, the ISG recommendations and the first half of the purported Gates plan could have been carried out under the terms of the Supplemental Appropriation that the President vetoed. That Democratic piece of legislation did not call for the removal of all U.S. troops from Iraq. It called for the removal of all U.S. combat troops. That legislation also stated that the remaining troops were to be used to train the Iraqi security forces and to fight al-Qaida. All three approaches are designed to get American forces out from the cross fire of a Civil War.
It might be more productive not to try to legislate the end state of the war. Congress would do well to work toward a bi-partisan effort to take the first, largely agreed, step. That step could be to begin redeploying U.S, combat forces this Fall and reaching an end state in the spring of 2008. The exact dates would be subject to negotiation within Congress and, if the president were willing to cooperate, with the administration. The end state would be a force of approximately 70,000 or about half the pre-surge level before next summer. There are many military details to be handled in the first step, including how to secure the Green Zone with fewer U.S. forces in Baghdad when it is attacked daily now.
The key to hammering out the final details of step one is acceptance by the administration of the need to reach agreement within the next few months. Congress is likely to reach a bipartisan agreement on a plan. But it is uncertain that there will be the votes to over ride a veto.
The president has two choices. He can continue to temporize until September hoping that the report of General David Petraeus will provide a sliver of a rationale for more time. He can try to bolster his position by using the sixth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks to once again falsely link Iraq to those attacks. And he can unleash Vice President Cheney to tar those trying to change course as defeatists and unpatriotic. This course can probably be played out for several months until logistic realities will dictate that a major U.S. presence will remain in Iraq until Mr. Bush leaves office.
Or the president can acknowledge the emerging consensus and take the lead in forging a plan that he can accept. In doing so, he has some chance to shape the future in Iraq and not cede that leadership entirely to Congress.
In the military there is a dictum: "lead, follow or get out of the way." The nation is no longer willing to follow the president's lead on the same failed course. The president should not continue to follow the failed policies of the past. If he cannot join a bipartisan Congressional effort, he should get out of the way.
Col. Richard L. Klass is a Vietnam war combat veteran. He is currently President of the Veterans Alliance for Security and Democracy Political Action Committee (VETPAC).