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Iraq Deserves One More Chance

Despite the earlier pledge of congressional Democrats not to challenge funding for the war in Iraq this year, key members of the House and Senate are considering robust and binding responses to the conflict -- most specifically to President Bush's surge strategy. Congress is within its constitutional rights to do so. But in its understandable response to a failing mission and an impatient American public, its approach is unproductive. Rather than force a showdown with Mr. Bush this winter and spring, Congress should give his surge strategy a chance -- while preparing for the real fight this fall.

The House has expressed its disapproval of the decision to increase American forces in Iraq by up to 30,000 troops as implied by the president's new strategy. The Senate, despite a majority in favor of taking a similar approach, has been unable to do so due to procedural rules that have allowed the minority to impede a vote.

More significant, however, are the new ideas in the works. Jack Murtha, a military veteran and longstanding pro-defense Democrat, is considering using his perch as chairman of the defense subcommittee on appropriations to make it very hard for Mr. Bush to send more troops to Iraq. Mr. Murtha would demand they have every element of their proper equipment inventory, training preparation, and proper rest between deployments before being sent abroad, allowing no cutting of corners despite the state of emergency in Iraq.

A number of key senators would revoke the authorization Congress gave Mr. Bush to confront Saddam in 2002, replacing the original war resolution with a new mandate permitting only a much more constrained American effort, focused on training Iraqis and getting our own forces home. Some of these U.S. officials may be further emboldened by the Blair government's recent decision to reduce British forces in Basra -- and to return them home rather than redeploy to Baghdad.

Mr. Murtha's approach may be good for those troops not yet deployed or redeployed to Iraq, but much less so for those already there who need help -- not to mention for the prospects of the overall mission, with all of its important implications for regional and American security. Furthermore, the proposal to rescind the war authorization seems, almost five years after the fact, largely irrelevant. Members of Congress had access to much the same classified intelligence on Iraq as did the administration prior to the 2003 invasion. The claim that Mr. Bush misled them and the country while making the case for war (even if partly true) does not seem reason enough to justify such a measure.

But the larger question here is of what our policy should be today. By that measure, the congressional debate is off tune. Many of the main themes now being discussed guarantee a dialogue of the deaf between the Congress and the president, with each side jockeying for political position and public support rather than working together to devise a game plan for Iraq for the crucial next year.

In fairness to the Democrats and a number of their Republican congressional colleagues, they have every reason to feel bold. Politics is a contact sport, after all. And with the nation's uniformed men and women in peril, waging a losing fight, there is every reason to play rough. After six years of being largely shut out of policy making by the Bush administration, and suffering the consequences of Karl Rove's zero-sum approach to politics and patriotism, they have had enough.

The Democratic plans are defensible if one concludes that Iraq is already irrevocably and completely lost. On this assumption, the administration's desire to try and salvage something from the situation -- even if just to mitigate the degree of our defeat -- is no longer realistic. Furthermore, any legislative maneuver that can embarrass Mr. Bush or even start forcing him to reduce our commitment seems justifiable.

Nevertheless, Congress's overall efforts are misguided for one fundamental reason: We cannot yet be sure that the situation in Iraq is totally hopeless. It is indeed bad, very bad, and the Bush administration has done a poor job with a war that it chose to launch at a time and place of its choosing. But there still may be a glimmer of hope -- if not to "win," then at least to achieve some minimum level of stability.

While those claiming that Iraq is already destined for all-out civil war, genocide and disintegration may in the end have their predictions confirmed, that does not mean such an outcome is inevitable. There is still hope of preventing a war with millions killed, the establishment of a major al Qaeda sanctuary in western Iraq, and a regional conflagration going beyond the country's borders.

There are good reasons to give the war effort, now almost four years old, another six to nine months before concluding that the current strategy should be discarded and a much different one -- involving far fewer (if any) foreign forces -- adopted. First, the new surge strategy being implemented by Gen. David Petraeus, while still insufficiently resourced, is much more consonant with classic counterinsurgency doctrine than anything the coalition has tried to date. Second, Iraq's Nouri al-Maliki government, while disappointing on balance, is less than a year old and may still improve. Third, and relatedly, the Democratic victory in the U.S. last fall is still fresh -- meaning that Iraqi political leaders are still digesting its significance. Some of them may be shocked into a greater sense of urgency now that they realize the American commitment to their country is finite and waning.

Robert Gates, Condoleezza Rice and Gen. Petraeus have all indicated that the new strategy should show progress by this summer if it has any chance to be successful. While there will likely be considerable debate over how much progress would be enough to warrant its continuation at that point, we should be able to agree that the violence must decline substantially. Currently, with 4,000 civilians killed and another 100,000 fleeing their homes per month, the country is being torn apart. If these numbers do not drop substantially within six months or so, it will then be time to move on.

Patience makes sense, for now. Congressional critics should, whether they personally support the surge or not, tolerate it for a few more months. It would be better to spend their time evaluating its progress, developing proposed "Plan B" options (such as Sen. Joseph Biden's plan for federalism), and contemplating proper political and legislative strategies to force a fight with Mr. Bush if necessary come the fall, when a new fiscal year begins and a new budget for the war will again be needed. But for now, war critics should, however begrudgingly, watch and wait.

Mr. O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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