Late last year, Sen. John Warner sponsored an amendment stating that 2006 should be “a period of significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty,” of security forces taking the lead and U.S. forces able to begin a phased withdrawal. Last week, Sen. Warner, having returned from a quick trip to Iraq, announced 2006 was not a year of transition on Iraq but of “drifting sideways” and that the United States should consider a change of course.”
Many people and many in Congress have said similarly before, but the comments by Sen. Warner, Republican chairman of the Armed Services Committee and a strong supporter of President Bush, carry considerably more weight. They force others in his party to choose between the “stay the course” policy in the administration and the recognition, long pointed out by the president’s opponents, that his Iraq policy is not working.
Fellow Republican on Armed Services, Sen. Susan Collins, recently said in the New York Times, “We’ve heard over and over that as Iraqis stand up, our troops will stand down. Well, there are now hundreds of thousands of Iraqi troops and security forces, and yet we have not seen any reduction in violence.”
Yesterday, Sen. Olympia Snowe was direct in her assessment of the White House’s current position: “As conditions in Iraq continue to worsen, there must be no questions among the administration, the Congress and the Iraqi unity government that staying the course is neither an option nor a plan.”
Republicans will hope to find both an alternative plan and political cover in an Iraq study group of five Republicans and five Democrats led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III. Already, Mr. Baker, whose group is expected to issue a report next month, has said the administration should spend more time talking with nations such as Syria and Iran about solutions in Iraq.
Assuming the Baker group’s conclusions look something like the realist policies of the first Bush administration, the reforms will begin to look at how to regain balance in the region to bring stability to Iraq while at the same time countering the expanding influence of Iran. That would require different sets of skills and priorities at the top of the Defense Department, including a new secretary.
One of the measures passed in the Warner amendment last year stated, “the administration needs to explain to Congress and the American people its strategy for the successful completion of the mission in Iraq.” President Bush has approached this challenge several ways but, nearly 10 months into the year of transition, none of them have been persuasive. The common standards for judging conditions in Iraq – the number of insurgent attacks, the number of Iraqi civilians wounded or killed, the number of Americans wounded or killed – point to a lack of progress. The troops risking their lives there deserve better.
“The bottom line,” said Sen. Snowe, “is if Iraq is not going to transition as the Congress has called for, then our strategy must undergo a transformation.”
Iraq isn’t, so the transformation should be swift and substantial.