tampabay.com

Iraq's fate awaits Bush exit

By PHILIP GAILEY
Published May 6, 2007


May I interrupt the clamorous political debate raging in Washington over Iraq to set the record straight? Contrary to what his critics say, President Bush does have a timetable for ending the war. He plans to hand the disaster over to his successor at high noon on Jan. 20, 2009.

If Iraq is going to have an ugly ending, as it almost surely will, Bush is determined to see that it doesn't happen on his watch, and there's not much the Congress can do to foil him short of cutting off funds for the war, a step Democrats apparently are not ready to take.

Bush will keep asking for more time and money. As long as American forces are in Iraq, as long the fighting goes on, the war cannot be labeled a failure, at least in Bush's mind. To admit defeat, to acknowledge that they blundered and destroyed a nation in the process, and maybe set the stage for even greater mayhem in the Middle East, is not the way of the swaggering pseudo-cowboy from Texas or his delusional and treacherous vice president.

Iraq is an immense human tragedy and major foreign policy debacle, and Bush's troop surge only delays the terrible day when this fact must be faced. At this point, what happens in Iraq is far more consequential than what happens in Washington, and there is little reason to expect much good news from Iraq in the coming months. So far, the main result of the troop surge is a painful spike in U.S. casualties. It has not quelled the violence or moved Iraq's sectarian factions closer to political reconciliation. There is no reason to believe the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government, even if it wanted to, is capable of reaching a political accord acceptable to the minority Sunni insurgents, who are inflicting most of the U.S. casualties.

Other than the cost in American blood, does it really matter whether we start withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq on Oct. 1, as the Democrats called for in the bill Bush vetoed last week, or after the next presidential election? The outcome is likely to be the same - bloody chaos as sectarian factions slaughter each other and settle scores. Is postponing that awful day of reckoning worth the lives and the limbs of hundreds or even thousands more American soldiers?

The president talks about a "way forward" in Iraq; Democrats are talking about a way out of Iraq, and most Americans are with them. But Bush continues to defy both.

Bush is as stubborn as he is cocky, and he has made it clear that public opinion be damned, he's going to hang tough until Iraq becomes his successor's problem. He must know that the next president will have a popular mandate to end the war, whatever the consequences for Iraq and the region.

There is another reality closing in on the White House, the fact that the U.S. combat role in Iraq cannot be sustained much longer without breaking the back of our severely stressed military. How long can we maintain current troop levels before exhausting our soldiers, many of whom are on their second and third tours of duty in Iraq? Some units are being deployed to Iraq without adequate training or equipment, often with fatal consequences for underprepared troops. The Army has lowered its recruitment standards and increased retention bonuses to meet its manpower needs.

Last month, two Army units were sent back to Iraq after less than a year at home, compared with the two years units traditionally enjoyed. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has extended combat tours for active-duty troops from 12 to 15 months. Repeated deployments, a Pentagon panel said last week, are taking a toll on the troops' mental health - one-third of the soldiers and veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Equipment is wearing out faster than our troops. Ninety percent of Army National Guard units are rated "not ready" because of shortfalls in equipment, but they're sent into combat anyway.

This cannot go on much longer. Something will have to give before we are left with a broken-down Army in a dangerous world.

Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, recently told Congress that it would be September before we know whether the president's troop surge is working. He promised lawmakers an "honest assessment" this fall, something we haven't had from this administration.

Let's hope that Petraeus, one of the Army's most respected generals, gives it to us straight. He should remember that while his duty as a military officer is to obey his commander in chief's orders, he has a higher duty to the American people - to speak the truth. He owes nothing less to his troops and his country.