Despite political setbacks, American commanders are clinging to a hope that stability might be built from the bottom up—with local groups joining or aiding U.S. efforts to root out extremists—rather than from the top down, where national leaders have failed to act.So let's leave aside the substantive questions about how this affects US security and the War on Terror, what are the political ramifications? Let's consider the period between now and next April, when Joint Chiefs Chair nominee Admiral Mullen testified that the surge cannot really be sustained.
Commanders are encouraged by signs that more Iraqis are growing fed up with violence. They are also counting on improvements in the Iraqi army and police, which are burdened by religious rivalries and are not ready to take over national defense duties from U.S. troops this year.
Rosy Scenario: The surge continues to go well, bloodshed in Iraq continues to decline, and there are signs of political reconciliation (oil revenue sharing or the like). The Iraqi government takes greater responsibility for security, so that it might be hoped that US troops are free to do little more than pursue Al Qaeda by the end of 2008.
I have to think that in this scenario, the Republicans come off looking good on Iraq. George Bush is no longer radioactive (although he's probably still not popular). The GOP Presidential nominee can talk of further ramping down our commitment in Iraq, and freeing up US troops for... R&R, an attack on Iran, or something else?
Middling Scenario: Petraeus' report on September 15 is positive; Republicans stick with the President, but most Democrats continue sniping. Political progress is less than robust, or insurgents figure out how to beat the press -- and either import more fighters from Iran, or in some other way figure out how to kill more Iraqis and Americans.In this scenario, I think Republicans likely go to the President before April and tell him that it's time to stand down in Iraq. If they do, what happens in Iraq and how is it perceived by the public? Do Republicans argue that the surge would have succeeded if not for those meddling Democrats, who forced us to leave before the mission was complete? Does the public buy that explanation, or do they blame Bush and the Republicans for starting the war, not having a strategy to win it, and then prolonging the occupation to try a surge that didn't work. Is there any way Republicans recover next year? Is it possible that the public still doesn't really trust dovish Democrats, rendering the issue a wash?
To me, this scenario has too many variable to try to figure.
Abject Failure: The surge goes south tomorrow, Petraeus's report doesn't matter, and Republicans push for a withdrawal before the end of the year. Our war in Iraq is a memory by November, 2008.This still has some of the same variables as the last scenario, but the GOP can't even try to argue that 'things were looking good.' Still, this scenario might not be a crushing one for the Republicans, since they would at least be done talking about Iraq -- and there's still the possibility that the public would distrust Democrats on the war on terror.
The thing is, it's that muddled middle scenario that seems the likeliest, at least for now. And that might be the best for the Democrats: no blame for opposing a successful war, but no real credit to the GOP for backing it. Democrats would be able to criticize without effective refutation by the Republicans, until relatively late in the election year.
Exit Question: What incentive do the Democrats have to pull back from their position of total rhetorical opposition to the war, but ineffectiveness at ending it? Assuming the surge continues past September -- and I welcome any bets that it won't -- what can the GOP do to enhance its political position in the months ahead?