Monday, November 28, 2005

Are we leaving yet?

Democrat Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. has caused a bit of a stir across the pond by writing an article called Time for An Iraq Timetable in the Washington Post.
The question most Americans want answered about Iraq is this: When will our troops come home? We already know the likely answer. In 2006, they will begin to leave in large numbers. By the end of the year, we will have redeployed about 50,000. In 2007, a significant number of the remaining 100,000 will follow. A small force will stay behind -- in Iraq or across the border -- to strike at any concentration of terrorists.
- Sen. Biden
It's not really the article which is causing the stir, it's what Scott McClellan said about it.
Today, Sen. Biden described a plan remarkably similar to the Administration's plan to fight and win the war on terror. We welcome Sen. Biden's voice in the debate.
-Scott McClellan
Careful Scott, that sound a bit like Whitehouse support for a timetable for withdrawal. On the same day, the LA Times reported that the administration had begun to lay the groundwork for a significant troop withdrawal. A former Pentagon official told them there was a "growing consensus" on withdrawing around 40,000 troops by November next year. Newsweek also reported on the US administrations changing attitude to troop reductions.
When Democrats said we should pull out our troops from Iraq, Vice President Dick Cheney and others were quick to label them defeatists. When the administration floated the idea this week of bringing home a third of the troops by election time next year, it was presented as good old patriotism. As the church lady on “Saturday Night Live” used to say “How convenient!” The striking change of tone is all about politics, and perhaps that’s how it should be in a democracy. Public support for the war has collapsed. The administration wants to avoid an embarrassing debate over who lost Iraq, so there won’t be the precipitous pullout that would look like a retreat. The troop withdrawals will be dictated by the election calendar, both in Iraq and here at home.

For all those who support the war, answer me this: do you think the UK government has even the tiniest influence over this process? This US domestic political timetable will, to a large extent, determine what happens next in Iraq. Over here in the UK, we can debate and discuss what we should do for the best and it'll make not the slightest bit of difference. We'll go when they go and they'll go when it suits them.

And, if you're trying to assess how much of this new approach is down to democracy in Iraq, remember that elections for what we're told will be the first democratic fully sovereign government in Iraq are going to be held on December 15th. Since that sovereign Iraqi government doesn't exist yet, it's hard to see how it could be playing a huge role in the formation of this new strategy. It is about public opinion, but it's almost exclusively about US public opinion.

That was, I'm afraid, always going to be the most likely result of this misadventure. From the start, the Whitehouse, and the Blair, have demonstrated time and again that their understanding of Iraq was woefully inadequate. Bush's "Mission Accomplished" banner spoke volumes. For me, it's the ultimate symbol of his administration's complete failure to understand the situation they faced in Iraq. Confronted with a situation of immense delicacy and enormous tension, the US administration handled it with all the skill and tact of a bulldozer driving the wrong way up a motorway. And now, after two and a half years of heavy handed occupation, just as the country is threatening to tear itself apart, they've had enough.* Head for the exits boys and gals, our work here is done...

At the end of September, I wrote:
The US military will start a staged withdrawal starting in the spring or summer of next year [2006]. This will be in response to the Iraqi government stating that their security services are now better equipped to fight the insurgency. This is unlikely to be influenced much by the actual state of the Iraqi security services or the insurgency. It will be influenced by the need to have good news to sell in the campaign for the US elections in November.
It looks like that's going to be fairly close to the mark. When I wrote that, the administration's position was that a timetable for withdrawal would be tantamount to surrender. It would only "embolden" the terrorists, they said. Now, it looks like we're about to get just such a timetable, although I doubt they'll call it that.

One thing about this has surprised me though. I did think the US administration would wait for the Iraqi government to be elected before they announced the plan to withdraw. That way, they could have claimed that they were acting in partnership with the democratically elected government of Iraq or some such nonsense. Doing it now means they can't claim that the Iraqi government was involved in the decision in any way. That's a bit of an own goal there, I feel.

At the same time, in a couple of months or so I'm sure we'll be told that the plan was created with the full cooperation of the the government of Iraq. That will, of course, make me laugh bitterly.

I believe President Bush is going to make an announcement on this on Wednesday. It'll be interesting to see exactly what he says. If you can't wait till then, you could always read the Dear Leader's daily thought on the matter.

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