Have Republicans and Democrats Found Common Ground on the Way Forward in Iraq?by Stephen Littau
Yesterday, President Bush addressed the American people to give his assessment of both the progress and the way forward in Iraq based on General Petraeus’s report and testimony before congress. As is customary when the president gives a speech, a member of the opposing party gave a counterpoint speech. This time the Democrats selected Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed.
As one would expect, President Bush focused on the positive developments found in the report while Senator Reed focused on the negative. You could say that they each “cherry picked” the information to support his side (which is also normal). I also expected that Senator Reed would focus his criticisms on the Administration’s past failures in Iraq (and he did not disappoint). The only part of the speeches I was interested in, however, was the way forward. Surprisingly, I did not see much disagreement there. Senator Jack Reed did not call for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq but proposed a “rapid” troop withdrawal, a refocusing of the mission to counterterrorism and training of the Iraqi army, and improved diplomacy among rival factions.
I read over the transcripts from both speeches to see if I could find any significant differences in the way forward. You may notice that I used much more of the President’s speech than I did Senator Reed’s. The reason for this is because Senator Reed did not focus much of his speech on the way forward but instead focused on past mistakes (otherwise I would have posted more of Reed’s speech regardless if I agreed or not). While it is quite proper to criticize President Bush for his mistakes in Iraq, criticism is not the same as coming up with a useful solution. I think most Americans on both sides of the Iraq debate are more interested in solutions than platitudes (I hope).
President Bush and Senator Reed on troop reduction
General Petraeus believes we have now reached the point where we can maintain our security gains with fewer American forces. He has recommended that we not replace about 2,200 Marines scheduled to leave Anbar Province later this month. In addition, he says it will soon be possible to bring home an Army combat brigade, for a total force reduction of 5,700 troops by Christmas.
And he expects that by July, we will be able to reduce our troop levels in Iraq from 20 combat brigades to 15.
We [Democrats] have put forth a plan to responsibly and rapidly begin a reduction of our troops.
I’m sure that President Bush and Senator Reed have differing opinions on how “rapidly” troops should be reduced. The president at least offers some specific numbers; Senator Reed keeps his statement generic so that he and other Democrats can say the troops are not being withdrawn quickly enough. If the Democrats actually do have a plan in place for troop reduction, it sure would have been more helpful if Reed had given some details about this plan in his speech. To be fair though, Senator Reed did point out that most of the troop withdrawals come from the surge and that most of the 130,000 troops would remain. Still, Reed fails to say how rapidly the Democrats want to withdraw.
President Bush and Senator Reed on counter terrorism and the training of the Iraqi army
According to General Petraeus and a panel chaired by retired General Jim Jones, the Iraqi army is becoming more capable, although there is still a great deal of work to be done to improve the National Police…
General Petraeus also recommends that in December, we begin transitioning to the next phase of our strategy in Iraq. As terrorists are defeated, civil society takes root, and the Iraqis assume more control over their own security, our mission in Iraq will evolve. Over time, our troops will shift from leading operations, to partnering with Iraqi forces, and eventually to overwatching those forces. As this transition in our mission takes place, our troops will focus on a more limited set of tasks, including counterterrorism operations and training, equipping, and supporting Iraqi forces…
I have consulted with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, other members of my national security team, Iraqi officials, and leaders of both parties in Congress. I have benefited from their advice, and I have accepted General Petraeus’s recommendations. I have directed General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker to update their joint campaign plan for Iraq, so we can adjust our military and civilian resources accordingly.
That is why our [Democrat] plan focuses on counter-terrorism and training the Iraqi army.
While both President Bush and Senator Reed seem to agree that the Iraqi army needs to be trained and shift the focus of American troops to counterterrorism, Senator Reed’s mention of the Democrats’ plan could fit on a bumper sticker. If the Democrats are offering a different strategy, it would have been very beneficial for the senator to tell the American people what their strategy is.
President Bush and Senator Reed on Diplomacy
Now the Iraqi government must bring the same determination to achieving reconciliation. This is an enormous undertaking after more than three decades of tyranny and division. The government has not met its own legislative benchmarks – and in my meetings with Iraqi leaders, I have made it clear that they must.
Yet Iraq’s national leaders are getting some things done. For example, they have passed a budget. They are sharing oil revenues with the provinces. They are allowing former Ba’athists to rejoin Iraq’s military or receive government pensions. And local reconciliation is taking place. The key now is to link this progress in the provinces to progress in Baghdad. As local politics change, so will national politics.
It [the Democrat plan] engages in diplomacy to bring warring factions to the table and addresses regional issues that inflame the situation.
Once again, isn’t President proposing the same thing? Have Republicans and Democrats found common ground on the way forward in Iraq? This all depends on how future events unfold. If the troops can be withdrawn sooner than later, if the Iraqi army takes control of their country, and if the diplomacy works to where rival factions begin to work together, the Democrats will try to take credit for pushing President Bush in this “new” direction. If, however, all of these strategies fail, the Democrats will have plausible deniability. This would explain why elected Democrats continue to be vague on the way forward in Iraq.