On Wednesday the Senate fell four votes short of passing a bill mandating that U.S. troops be allowed to spend as much time at home as they do on deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. The defeated proposal, which also failed in July, addresses a genuine problem: Throughout Iraq you meet soldiers and Marines whose personal lives have been strained, sometimes to the breaking point, by their long and repeated deployments.
During several trips to Iraq, I've met a soldier who spent only seven months at home between year-long deployments, and several soldiers who worry that their young children are growing up without them. Constant deployments are especially difficult for families in which both the husband and the wife are soldiers. If both deploy, it's possible they could go years without living at home as a family.
Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, who proposed the bill, has more personal experience with this issue than most politicians; his son is a Marine who has served in Iraq. However, Webb's proposal is not a humanitarian act: It is part of a political strategy. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said that the plan is not a "backdoor" method for reducing the American troop presence in Iraq, but that's exactly what it is. The only way to give soldiers and Marines more time in the U.S. is to reduce the total number of troops in Iraq at any given time. American troops have not being sent to Iraq at such a punishing pace because nobody cares about their well-being; they're being sent there because it's the only way for the U.S. military, with its current manpower, to keep up with the demands placed upon it by Congress and President Bush.
It's understandable that advocates of troop withdrawal would look for indirect ways to start drawing down the American presence in Iraq, since straightforward proposals to bring troops home have no chance of passing Congress. But disguising policy proposals as sentimental appeals to the well-being of American troops does little to advance a substantive debate over the course of American foreign policy. It is a cynical overcompensation for the accusation that opponents of the war don't "support the troops."
Soldiers and Marines may want a more sane deployment schedule, but they don't want pity. A rational Iraq policy, debated honestly, will do more to help them than a mud fight in Washington over who likes the troops more. Policymakers actually cannot ethically and rationally rely on sentimental "support our troops" arguments, since the reality of American politics is the opposite: The troops are bound by law and their sense of honor to support American policy no matter how wrong-headed the decisions American citizens make through their legislators. Soldiers and Marines will march into hell for their country, and have done so on many occasions over the past 230 years. This is even truer in the volunteer military, where disgruntled draftees have been replaced by a force in which each man and woman made a conscious choice to serve. It's an extraordinarily professional force, and its members are not inclined to feel sorry for themselves.
But eventually physical, psychological and logistical facts not posturing in Washington will require a substantial reduction in the American troop presence in Iraq. There are simply limits to how long the U.S. military can operate at this pace. The President is claiming that the additional 30,000 troops who arrived in Iraq as part of the surge can now return home because they have accomplished their mission. In truth, they are returning home because it is impossible to keep 160,000 soldiers and Marines in Iraq indefinitely.
The President's attempt to disguise the strain on the military as a "victory" for his troop surge is disingenuous politicking at its worst. But it's symptomatic of a debate in Washington that puts high-flown rhetoric and do-good intentions like "supporting the troops" ahead of a serious discussion of what America still can and should do in Iraq.