There has been a lot of talk about Iraq this week. As I processed the fallout of last week's congressional testimony of Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, and the reactions to what was said, it became clear that all the talk in the world from politicians doesn't matter, because the realities of the situation will dictate the upcoming moves.
Specifically, we will begin to disengage from Iraq. What makes me so sure? It is becoming incontrovertible that our continued presence in Iraq is not sustainable. To make my point, I will rely on the recent statements of three individuals with a lot more knowledge of the military and political realities of Iraq than I have. And, to prove I'm not being partisan, the three experts I will cite to are a general, a Republican, and, wait for it, a Republican general (retired).
A week before Petraeus and Crocker appeared before Congress, Gen. Richard Cody, the Army's vice chief of staff, testified before the readiness panel of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Cody said that he thought that the strain on the military due to the extended engagement in Iraq was "substantial," saying, "When the five-brigade surge went in . . . that took all the stroke out of the shock absorbers for the United States Army." Cody went on to say that the military is so overstretched that even if five brigades are pulled out of Iraq by July -- something the president later said would not happen -- it would be a long time before the Army could return to 12-month tours of duties while maintaining the current force levels.
In assessing the Army's current state, Cody observed, "I've never seen our lack of strategic depth be where it is today."
What should be most chilling to Americans is Cody's observation that the Army does not have troops ready to go if a threat or conflict were to pop up. After laying out what the country needs to be ready for "full-spectrum operations," he said, "we don't have that today."
In sum, according to a press release from Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), Cody testified:
"Today, our Army is out of balance. The current demand for forces in Iraq and Afghanistan exceeds our sustainable supply of soldiers, of units and equipment, and limits our ability to provide ready forces for other contingencies. Our readiness, quite frankly, is being consumed as fast as we can build it. Lengthy and repeated deployments with insufficient recovery time at home station have placed incredible stress on our soldiers and on their families, testing the resolve of the all-volunteer force like never before.”
Another voice on Iraq that needs to be considered is Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In anticipation of the Petraeus/Crocker appearances on Capitol Hill, Lugar laid out five "premises" for any Iraq discussion based on a series of hearings held by his committee (including one at which Cody testified). According to Lugar's press release, these five premises are:
1) Militarily speaking, the surge has worked. Lugar said, "[T]he surge has succeeded in improving the conditions on the ground in many areas of Iraq and creating 'breathing space' for exploring political accommodation."
2) Militarily, we've done all we can, and now only diplomatic efforts will make any real difference. "[S]ecurity improvements derived purely from American military operations have reached or almost reached a plateau. Military operations may realize some marginal security gains in some areas, but these gains are unlikely to be transformational for the country beyond what has already occurred. Progress moving forward depends largely on political events in Iraq."
3) The Iraqi government has not done its part to further political progress in Iraq. Lugar noted, "The Iraqi government is afflicted by corruption and shows signs of sectarian bias. It still has not secured the confidence of most Iraqis or demonstrated much competence in performing basic government functions, including managing Iraq’s oil wealth, overseeing reconstruction programs, delivering government assistance to the provinces, or creating jobs."
4) Iraqis are more interested in sectarian battles than seeking peace. Lugar observed, "[S]ectarian and tribal groups remain heavily armed and are focused on expanding or solidifying their positions." He went on to say, "Iraq will be an unstable country for the foreseeable future, and if some type of political settlement can be reached, it will be inherently fragile."
5) The Iraq operation has stretched our military capability, and we will be unable to sustain our current commitment. In addition to laying out the Cody quote I reprinted above, Lugar also pointed to chilling statements made by other generals, including Gen. Barry McCaffrey's observation that due to loosening standards to try and meet recruiting goals, 10 percent of recruits "should not be in uniform," and Maj. Gen. Robert Scales's testimony that "for the first time since the summer of 1863, the number of ground soldiers available is determining American policy rather than policy determining how many troops we need."
Lugar noted that if you accept these five premises, "[s]imply appealing for more time to make progress is insufficient." He went on to note, "The debate over how much progress we have made and whether we can make more is less illuminating than determining whether the administration has a definable political strategy that recognizes the time limitations we face and seeks a realistic outcome designed to protect American vital interests."
Of course, Petraeus and Crocker, and later the president, completely ignored this conclusion. Petraeus echoed his testimony from 2007 and said, essentially, "Wait 'til September," and Bush not only failed to withdraw troops, but actually suspended the drawdown to bring the number of military personnel in Iraq back to pre-surge levels.
(As an aside, David Broder did an excellent job of publicizing Lugar's five premises, something that went virtually uncovered by the useless mainstream media.)
Finally, the former general and Republican secretary of state Colin Powell weighed in on the Iraq situation after the Petraeus/Crocker testimony. On ABC's "Good Morning America," Powell's remarks were so direct, there was no ambiguity as to where he stands. He said, "The United States Armed Forces are very, very stretched. It appears that after the surge is over, we're going to go down to 140,000 troops in Iraq. That's 10,000 more than we had before the surge. ... There is something of a continued surge there with that extra 10,000. And based on what Gen. Petraeus has said, he wants to let the surge troops go by July and then take 45 days to see what it looks like, and then begin a process of assessment. Well, that tells me that we know what the administration strategy is going to be through the end of the term of the administration. And that is, we're going to maintain a very significant presence." Powell concluded that "That is an extremely difficult burden for the United States Army, the United States Marine Corps, to keep up."
In assessing what the next president will face upon taking office, Powell's conclusion was quite stark: "I'll tell you what they're all going to face — whichever one of them becomes president on Jan. 21 of 2009 — they will face a military force, a United States military force, that cannot sustain, continue to sustain, 140,000 people deployed in Iraq, and the 20 (to) 25,000 people we have deployed in Afghanistan, and our other deployments."
To be clear, none of these three experts, Cody, Lugar or Powell, offered an easy solution. Powell even noted that pulling the forces out of Iraq will not be as simple as just saying, "We're out of here, turn off the switch, turn off the lights, we're leaving."
But what these three experts agree upon is that the U.S. military is stretched beyond a safe level and cannot sustain the current troop levels in Iraq. And, to be clear, we're talking about a powerful general, a Republican senator, and a former general who served as a Republican secretary of state.
When Republicans and generals are saying, "We can't do this anymore," why is the issue often portrayed as some kind of partisan battle? And why is the debate about "should we stay" rather than "how can we get out"?
I hope that the eventual Democratic presidential nominee (who, barring some kind of 2007 Mets-like meltdown, will be Sen. Barack Obama) does not allow himself to get drawn into the Iraq debate on Sen John McCain's terms. Obama has to turn the debate from "surrender dates" and "choosing to fail" to reality: Our experts tell us that our military cannot remain in Iraq, and we need to figure out the quickest and best way to withdraw our forces and rebuild our military preparedness.
Any other discussion, ultimately, will just be talk.