The implosion of the White House Iraq policy is unfolding on three tracks: on the ground in Iraq, in the clash between Democrats and Republicans over withdrawal, and in the widening scandals weakening the presidency itself.
On the ground: The US "surge" is only redistributing the casualties. Since Feb. 14, for example, 24 Americans have been killed in al-Diyala province, scene of a stalemated counter-insurgency effort. In the seven weeks before Feb. 14, only ten Americans were killed in the province. Overall, the killing of Americans in Baghdad has doubled, while the number of US deaths countrywide has remained the same. [see NYT, April 9, April 25] Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis called for US withdrawal on the fourth anniversary of the fall of Saddam, under the leadership of Moktada al-Sadr. [LAT, April 10]. Insurgents blew up the parliament and an historic Baghdad bridge on April 12. Gen. Petraeus' wall in Baghdad is being repudiated by Sunnis and Shi'as. Meanwhile 131 members of the Iraqi parliament have called for a withdrawal timeline [out of 275 members]. The pillar of the al-Maliki government is unstable, even in danger of falling.
In Congress: Democrats have settled on a minimal anti-war position but one sharply at odds with Bush. The interaction with the battlefield is apparent; according to Gen. Petraeus, "the Washington clock is moving more rapidly than the Baghdad clock. So we're obviously trying to speed up the Baghdad clock a bit to produce some progress on the ground that can, perhaps... put a little more time on the Washington clock." [National Journal, April 24].
House and Senate progressives will continue pushing for a timeline to end funding by next year. Assuming a Bush veto of the present legislation, the Democrats will keep forcing vulnerable Republicans to vote over and over for the war. The current majority may compromise by deleting the withdrawal deadlines in exchange for "enforceable benchmarks", to the dismay of most in the anti-war movement.
If the votes are lacking for withdrawal, the focus will be on the details of the "benchmarks", which will be met by deep skepticism. The acid test is whether they can be enforced, or at least pushed to the center of fierce debate by activists, the Democrats and the media. Some of the key "benchmarks" in the current package are:
1] a presidential finding by this July 1 that the Baghdad regime will give the US permission to "pursue all extremists", including the insurgency and the militias of Moktada al-Sadr. This loophole seems to permit the current war to proceed.
2] building "balanced security forces" and "even-handed security." This is unlikely in the extreme.
3] "a strong militia disarmament program"
4] "eradicating safe havens" [multiple sites in Iraq, including al-Anbar and al-Diyala provinces].
5] substantial progress towards "reconciliation initiatives", a hydro-carbon law, provincial elections which may benefit Sunnis, reform of de-Baathification, fair allocation of reconstruction funds.
6] reducing sectarian violence and ensuring the rights of minority political parties.
It is hard to know what to make of these Democratic proposals. To what extent are they designed seriously or only for political cover? The most dangerous one is the open-ended authorization to continue combat operations against "all extremists", which should be opposed by the anti-war movement and their Democratic allies. The related problem is the resurfacing of the "humanitarian hawks" who delude themselves into believing the US military can succeed in a more low-visibility role combining counter-insurgency and economic development. The flaw in their thinking is that American soldiers can serve as "trainers" to an Iraqi state described as sectarian even by the Baker-Hamilton Report.
If the ultimate Democratic package is viewed as part of a political dynamic, however, it will increase the pressure on Bush and al-Maliki since the benchmarks undercut the basis of the current sectarian Shi'sa-Kurdish state. If they are mere window-dressing, that will become severely damaging to the White House in the presidential campaign ahead.
3. The scandals. This may be the endgame of the war, the Watergate Moment for the Bush administration. Since the Democrats prevailed in the November 2006 election, one scandal after another has cascaded over the walls of the White House. Today it is the fabrication over the death of Pat Tillman by "friendly fire." The targets have included John Bolton, Alberto Gonzales, Scooter Libby, the Veterans Administration, Karl Rove and Dick Cheney. The comparison to Watergate is this: while the Congress began formulating exit plans as early as 1969, they gained critical momentum when joined to the Watergate hearings of 1973. Nixon simply became too weak at home to fight back over Vietnam and Cambodia. The proposal to cut funding for direct or indirect combat operations by August 15, 1973 was imposed on Nixon's White House.
The rapid weakening of the Bush White House shows no signs of abating. It is a pent-up response to six years of absolute Republican control of all branches of government. The dynamic is accelerating. It will be difficult to breathe strength into Bush's war if the Bush administration itself is being crippled in response to its arrogance of power. Call it an indirect impeachment.
Tom Hayden teaches a sociology course on Iraq at Pitzer College, Los Angeles. He is author of Ending the War in Iraq [Akashic books, June 2007]