The Iraq Debate That Wasn't

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Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

President Bush gestures as he answers questions during his news conference, July 12,2007.

Americans would be forgiven for thinking there's a major debate under way in Washington over whether or not the U.S. should leave Iraq. The Senate is halfway through two weeks of fierce fighting over setting timelines, enforcing benchmarks and generally trying to pressure the White House to reduce the number of American troops there. President Bush held a lengthy press conference Thursday, in which he hinted he might change course on the war after his generals report to him in September. Once they've done so, he said, "We'll use that data... to, you know, make another decision, if need be."

Whether or not Bush finds it necessary to "make another decision" probably won't be known until September. But ask senior White House staffers involved in Iraq planning what they imagine such a course shift would mean for troop levels, and you get a range just under 100,000. And what would these troops be doing? Bush himself laid it out today. "There's a lot of discussion about a scenario in which our troop posture would be to guard the territorial integrity of — of the country of Iraq, to embed and train, to help the Iraqi security forces deal with violent elements in their society, as well as keep enough Special Forces there to chase down al-Qaeda. As a matter of fact, that is something that I've spoken publicly about, so that's — that's the position I would like to see us in."

The prospect of 100,000 troops doing all of that in the middle of sectarian fighting, and under continued attack from suicide bombers, doesn't sound much like what most Americans would imagine as the end of the war in Iraq. True, it would mean removing the combat forces that go head-to-head with insurgents on the ground because they are patrolling to provide security — a responsibility that would pass to Iraqi forces, such as they are. That, in turn, would mean a drop in casualties. But short of the outbreak of peace in Iraq — not likely — White House planners don't foresee even a majority of American forces coming out anytime soon.

So what's with all the end-the-war talk? The impression being created by the debate in Washington is more about politics than anything else. For starters, Democrats are playing to their base: Though most Senate Democrats support a redeployment along the lines that Bush is describing, they are keen to give voters the impression that they are all for getting the U.S. out of Iraq. And they are, but not yet. They, too, recognize a need for a strong, interim force in country to offset the threat of mass killing, secure the borders, chase al-Qaeda and deter Iranian meddling in the country.

As for the Republicans, they too are playing to core supporters. They know that, in theory at least, Bush wants a smaller role for U.S. troops; he's been trying to get there for years now. But their interest is to cast the political battle with Democrats as one of strength versus defeatism. So, even if the Democrats' position is not in fact that far from where the President claims to be headed, both sides are portraying the gap between them as unbridgeable. Which, in turn, leaves the impression that the debate is between those who want to escalate the war and those who want to withdraw U.S. forces entirely.

One way or another, something along the lines the President is describing will likely occur in 2008, if not sooner. And then, regardless of the situation on the ground, Bush will say he moved the right number of troops at the right time. The Democrats will say they forced him to do so, and will find new ways to keep the mess in Iraq front and center in the national debate — without necessarily pushing to bring all the troops home right away. If you're looking for someone who will lead a speedy withdrawal from Iraq, you'll have to go to the extreme left or right of the parties. Nobody in the mainstream is looking to get out soon.