Will Bush's Tragedy Trap His Successor in Iraq?

The essence of Greek tragedy is that protagonists move inexorably to a climax the audience can anticipate before the characters discover their fate. As the curtain rises for Washington's battle over Iraq, Congressional leaders must reject the role President Bush has scripted for them in his Iraq tragedy. Otherwise, in January 2009, a newly-elected president will find himself or herself waist deep in a quagmire that will dominate their one term presidency.

No one should have any doubt about President Bush's overriding operational objective. It is to hand over this war to his successor. In his own words: "I will not withdraw even if Laura and Barney [his dog] are the only ones supporting me." To this end he will do and say whatever is necessary. But at this point, the president's words hardly matter. Most Americans have concluded, correctly, that on Iraq, President Bush is simply no longer to be believed.

The most credible advocate of the war will be General Petraeus. The best that the American military--and indeed American society-- has to offer, Petraeus is competent, thoughtful, even heroic. "Can-do" at his core, Petraeus will accentuate the positive in whatever is happening, highlight measurable progress and warn against reversing this by premature or precipitous withdrawal.

At the Defense Department, Secretary Gates has signaled his highest priority: to find common ground for bipartisan support of a sustainable strategy. That will require some compromise with Democrats. The terms of a partial withdrawal will be shaped by realities of US Army and Marine manning charts. These necessitate withdrawal of the first brigade (about 4,000 men) no later than April 2008, followed by additional brigades at the rate of about one per month thereafter until reaching a sustainable plateau.

The driver of what will at the end of this act certainly be a change in announced strategy and date for beginning withdrawal is twenty-one Republican Senators standing for reelection in November 2008. With three out of four Americans saying the country is headed in the wrong direction, that Bush is mishandling Iraq, and that things are going badly in Iraq, these Senators cannot campaign on a strategy of support for a sinking ship. Before Congress recessed, Senators Warner and Lugar signaled the necessity for the president to shift tracks. The Republican leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, has identified September 15 as the "key time for the vast majority of my members and it certainly is for me."

And what about the Democrats? So far, President Bush has given them an easy pass. They have been able to simply oppose a failed strategy and wrap Republican colleagues and would-be presidential nominees around that mast.

What should the audience anticipate that the actors seem not yet to have grasped? Heated rhetoric from all parties will in the end be followed by a compromise that includes a change of mission and a date for beginning to drawdown. The new mission will transition from "clear and hold" to countering al Qaeda, training Iraqi forces, and protecting Americans still in Iraq. Petraeus will advocate sustaining the surge through next summer; Democrats will urge beginning withdrawal now. My bet is that the compromise will bring home the first brigade by Christmas 2007 and promise withdrawal of an additional combat brigade approximately every month thereafter. Operationally, however, this promise will "depend on conditions," thus leaving the president enough wiggle room for his purpose.

On the ground in Iraq, as American combat groups leave, security will erode. Thus as Americans move out of neighborhoods in Baghdad or areas in Anbar province, the most likely result is a reversion to the conditions prior to their arrival, which, as the NIE of January 2007 stated, will "deteriorate at rates comparable to the latter part of 2006."

Following this script, the new president who takes office in January 2009 will inherit 75,000 Americans in Iraq under conditions in which security is worse, sectarian divides deeper, and Iraq's government even more dysfunctional than today. If leaders in Congress judge this outcome unacceptable, they must rise up and reject the lines President Bush has given them.