June 1, 2006  

The Iraq Summit

Today and tomorrow President Bush huddles with top advisers and military commanders at Camp David to review U.S. strategy for Iraq. And, for the first time, the "summit" will include a fully functional Iraqi government, at least in form. Iraqi leader Nuri al Maliki and his advisers will participate in a video conference.

As much as the meetings are meant to take a fresh look at the situation – and with the killing of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, there’s a good reason to have a brighter outlook – most of the fundamental issues will remain the same. First of all, the central issue has been and will continue to be that of the U.S. military presence in Iraq, and in particular the question of force size. Gen. George Casey, commander of the "Army of the Euphrates," appeared on the Sunday talk shows yesterday, but his sphinx-like statements didn’t clarify anything. He was quoted as saying that there might be reductions in troop levels later this year or early in 2007, but that if he thought he needed more, he’d ask for more. And of course, the real factor in any decision would be the capabilities of the new Iraqi security forces.

But though force levels are the main focus of public discussion, the real "number" issue is the number of years that U.S. commanders ? and politicians ? use for as their planning horizon in Iraq. The goal of American strategy, let’s remember, is not simply to defeat the insurgency, but to establish a legitimate, representative and stable government in Baghdad. That’s a much larger task, and one that requires lots of time as well as lots of troops. It’s also one that inherently links the situation in Iraq to a larger regional strategy, but one that has yet to be articulated. The administration ought to be talking about "post-insurgency Iraq" as well; that moment may still seem far away, but it’s not to early to be thinking about it. We don’t want to commit the original error made while planning the invasion.

Indeed, the best outcome of the Camp David Iraq summit would be for President Bush to begin a new phase of strategy that not only looks farther forward in Iraq but begins the American public into this discussion. The upcoming U.S. elections – not so much 2006 but very much the 2008 presidential contest – are really the most immediately decisive events for the future of Iraq. Today, most debate remains about the mistakes made in the past. Beyond the phony argument about an American withdrawal, there hasn’t been any serious discussion about how to sustain the U.S. commitment. Given that this is the issue by which George Bush will be judged by history, is behooves him to begin to shape the debate, now.