November 22, 2005
Bucking the Tide, McCain Calls for More Troops in Iraq

By Mort Kondracke

Democrats are pushing for early troop withdrawals from Iraq. Republicans are panting for them. But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said that would be "a major step on the road to disaster."

Somehow, last week, The New York Times and The Washington Post decided to give top-of-Page 1 treatment to Democratic Rep. John Murtha's (Pa.) call for immediate troop withdrawals. Yet when McCain, normally a hero of the media (myself included), advocated increasing U.S. troop strength by 10,000 in a Washington, D.C., speech on Nov. 10, it got played on Page 21 of the Times and Page 16 of the Post. McCain, though, has it right.

"We must stay in Iraq until the government there has a fully functioning security apparatus that can keep [Abu Musab al-] Zarqawi and his terrorists at bay, and ultimately defeat them," he said at the American Enterprise Institute. "Drawdowns must be based on conditions in-country, not arbitrary deadlines rooted in our domestic politics."

McCain spelled out, better than President Bush has, the stakes involved in leaving Iraq prematurely. He also recommended changes in military strategy needed to achieve victory.

Unfortunately, domestic politics is driving calls for withdrawal in Washington and may be having an effect on the U.S. military and the White House.

Bush repeatedly vows that U.S. troops will remain in Iraq "until the job is done," but White House aides have let it be known that they think the president's dismal political fortunes won't improve until withdrawals begin.

Republican Members of Congress said they urgently hope sizable withdrawals begin before the 2006 election, even as Democrats ratchet up the pressure for withdrawal deadlines and an "exit strategy."

Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said it's strictly up to U.S. commanders in the region to decide how many troops the United States needs, based on local conditions. But those commanders often indicate that withdrawals should begin in 2006 - partly because they worry that political support is flagging.

In September, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius attended a "commanders huddle" at Centcom headquarters in Doha, Qatar, where top U.S. generals almost sounded like Murtha in making the point that U.S. troops were becoming the chief targets of insurgent activity and the job of defending Iraq should be turned over as rapidly as possible to Iraqis.

Ignatius quoted Gen. George Casey, who commands U.S. troops in Iraq, as saying that "the longer we carry the brunt of the counterinsurgency fight, the longer we will carry the brunt. The sooner we shift [to Iraqi security] the better. A smaller U.S. footprint, that is allowed to decline gradually as Iraqi forces get stronger, actually helps us."

The commanders, Ignatius reported, are planning to cut U.S. troop levels over the next year and focus on training and advising Iraqis. And, he wrote, "what [Centcom Commander Gen. John] Abaizaid and his commanders seem to fear most is that eroding political support for the war in the United States will undermine their strategy for gradual transition to Iraqi control."

Political support is eroding, although politicians of both parties are more eager for withdrawal than the public. The latest Gallup poll found that only 19 percent of U.S. adults favor immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops. Thirty-five percent favor withdrawal over 12 months, while 38 percent are willing to keep U.S. troops in Iraq until stability is established and 7 percent want troop levels increased.

Yet last week the Senate voted 79-19 for a resolution backed by GOP leaders calling for 2006 to be "a period of significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty, with Iraqi forces taking the lead for the security of a free and sovereign Iraq, thereby creating the conditions for the phased redeployment of U.S. forces."

Republicans voted down, and denounced as "cut and run," a Democratic amendment calling for "a campaign plan with estimated dates" for withdrawals. But if that was cut and run, the measure that passed was "loosen and walk" - a definite sign that politicians in Washington want out, and soon.

McCain was one of the 19 Senators voting against that measure, in addition to six Democrats who want faster withdrawal and 12 other Republicans who don't want to give the enemy in Iraq a signal that America is losing its resolve.

McCain spoke at AEI before Murtha made his proposal. His "major step on the road to disaster" statement was directed at a proposal by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) calling for withdrawal of 20,000 of America's 153,000 troops this year and full withdrawal by the end of next year.

"Should America follow these calls," McCain said, "we would face consequences of the most serious nature. Because Iraqi forces are not yet capable of carrying out most security operations on their own, great bloodshed would occur. If we were to leave prematurely, the most likely result would be full-scale civil war."

"When America toppled Saddam Hussein," McCain said, "we incurred a moral duty not to abandon the people to terrorists and killers. If we withdraw prematurely ... we will have done precisely that. I can hardly imagine that any U.S. Senator or any American leader would want our nation to suffer that moral stain."

But he said the reasons for staying went beyond the moral and into the realm of national security: Syria and Iran would be stronger, U.S. allies would be weaker, Iraq would turn into a "failed state" like pre-2001 Afghanistan and "the jihadists will interpret our withdrawal as their great victory against our great power.

"Success or failure in Iraq is the transcendent issue of our foreign policy and our national security, for now and years to come. I submit that the stakes are higher than in the Vietnam War."

In order to develop a winning strategy - clearing territory of insurgents and holding it, rather than leaving and moving on - McCain said "we need more troops. For this reason I believe that current ideas to effect a partial withdrawal during 2006 are wrong.

"Instead of drawing down, we should be ramping up, with more civil-military soldiers, translators and counter-insurgency operations teams." He said that the overall size of the U.S. military needs to be expanded by 10,000 troops.

Bush has been speaking out lately to rebut Democratic charges that he lied to get the United States into Iraq. What he needs to do even more is to make the case for winning. He should take his cues from McCain.

Mort Kondracke is the Executive Editor of Roll Call.

Mort Kondracke

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