Short-term domestic calculations usually short-circuit long-term foreign policy considerations, never more so than in an election year. But when it comes to US policy toward Iraq, domestic politics may turn out to be more of a help than a hindrance in producing an effective policy.
Despite a welcome reduction in violence over the past year, American impatience with the war remains undiminished. Three-fourths of Americans believe the war was a mistake and a majority favors either immediate or gradual withdrawal. This reality boosts the chance that a candidate pledged to end the war will take office next January. That prospect, in turn, may finally prompt Iraqi political leaders to reach the political compromises that have so far eluded them.
The surge in American troops, and the changes in tactics that accompanied it, have helped to bring the level of violence down significantly in recent months. But the surge was only one factor in reducing violence. The intense sectarian killing of 2006-07 caused a massive displacement of Sunnis and Shi'ites, forcing nearly 5 million Iraqis to leave their homes. Formerly mixed neighborhoods are today much more ethnically homogeneous, reducing the incentives for violence.
Just as important was the decision by Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar and other provinces in late 2006 to join the Americans in the fight against Al Qaeda in Iraq and other outside influences. Similarly, violence fell when the radical Shi'ite militia run by Moqtada al-Sadr announced a cease-fire, still officially in force but increasingly tenuous.
The increase in the American troop presence has reinforced these positive trends but has neither ensured that they will continue nor produced the promised political reconciliation that would guarantee peace without the American presence. For that reason, President Bush will probably keep at least 130,000 US forces in Iraq until his term ends in January 2009.
Here is where the utility of our political calendar comes in. It is possible that the continued presence of a large number of troops will contain the violence and thus provide space for political reconciliation, as both Bush and Senator John McCain insist. They still have 10 months to prove their case. The prospect of a new administration coming to power in January 2009 committed to withdrawing forces should help them convince the Iraqis to make the needed political compromises.
If, as we think more likely, there is no fundamental political change in Iraq, the current policy of keeping large numbers of US forces there indefinitely makes no sense. The war is costing Americans at least $10 billion a month - as the economy heads into a recession. US casualties are down but unending. The pace of operations is stretching the Army and Marine Corps to the breaking point and forcing us to neglect security obligations in Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world. Bearing such costs on the road to success is noble; doing so while spinning our wheels is folly.
That is why the Democratic candidates for president are right to pledge, if elected, a gradual drawdown of US forces from Iraq. The idea that such a withdrawal is "precipitous" or "hasty" - let alone a "rush for the exits" - is nonsense. Both Senators Obama and Clinton are proposing a gradual drawdown over 12-16 months - that is more than two years from now, more than three years after the surge began, and more than seven years into this war. If within this period Iraq is not making real political making progress, the right strategic decision for the United States is to get out.
Any withdrawal plan must be responsible. If Iraq begins to make real political progress, we should consider adjusting the pace of the withdrawal in order to assist the government in maintaining security and standing up its security forces. Even if there is no political change, we must secure our national interests by maintaining sufficient forces in the theater to deter regional aggression and prevent terrorists from establishing a safe haven.
Whether the surge is working or whether it has failed, one thing is clear: Come January 2009, American forces should start coming home. Whether they do so in the wake of the surge's success or its failure is up to the Iraqis.