In 1966, Republican Sen. George Aiken (Vt.) famously advised President Lyndon Johnson to “declare victory and get out” of Vietnam. There’s a danger that this will become U.S. policy in Iraq and lead to a too-early withdrawal of American troops and disaster in the Middle East.
In his speech last week at the Naval Academy — perhaps his most effective yet on the Iraq war — President Bush declared once again that he has no such intention.
“We will never accept anything less than complete victory,” he said, and defined victory as the time “when the terrorists and Saddamists can no longer threaten Iraq’s democracy, when the Iraqi security forces can provide for the safety of their own citizens and when Iraq is not a safe haven for terrorists to plot new attacks on our nation.”
I believe Bush means what he says. He warned that “there will be tough days ahead” and added “if our military leaders tell me we need more troops, I will send them.”
And yet, Bush, his military commanders and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are all sending signals that the buildup of Iraqi security forces will allow substantial troop reductions over the next year, down from the current 157,000 on hand to secure the Dec. 15 Iraqi elections to the normal level of 138,000 and possibly below 100,000 by the end of next year.
Administration officials all hasten to say that U.S. troop levels depend on “conditions on the ground” and that there will be no “artificial” deadlines or timetables.
Still, political pressures are such that optimistic projections can harden into expectations and cause the administration to overestimate the readiness of Iraqi security forces in order to meet them.
The enemy in Iraq can be expected to mount furious attacks in the next two weeks to undermine the elections and further deflate American morale, possibly seeking to duplicate the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam, but afterward it might well lay low, saving its resources for the time when U.S. troop levels are reduced.
As Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) said in his courageous defense of the war effort last week, “almost all of the progress in Iraq and throughout the Middle East will be lost if [U.S.] forces are withdrawn faster than the Iraqi military is capable of securing the country.”
Like administration officials, he said the Iraqi forces are making surprising progress and that “if all goes well, I believe we can have a much smaller American military presence there by the end of 2006 or in 2007.” But he added that, “it is also likely that our presence will have to be significant in Iraq or nearby for years to come.”
Lieberman said he was concerned that members of his own party were more interested in attacking Bush than in winning a victory in Iraq and that Republicans “are more worried about whether the war will bring them down in next November’s elections.”