Monday, January 22, 2007

Circumstances have changed (perhaps not in Iraq, but certainly in Connecticut and Washington, D.C.) (Part Four of the Lieberman Project)

Exit polls in Connecticut confirmed that Lieberman’s strategy of supporting withdrawal from Iraq but opposing timelines and deadlines was a smashing success. As expected, Lieberman outpolled Lamont by huge margins among those voters who opposed withdrawal, but in Connecticut these hardliners constituted only a third of the electorate. The other two-thirds of the electorate in Connecticut divided evenly between “withdraw some troops” and “withdraw all.” Lamont beat Lieberman by better than two to one among the “withdraw all” voters. Amazingly, however, exit polls indicated that Lieberman had actually edged Lamont among those who favored withdrawing some troops from Iraq by 47% to 45%. Lieberman even managed to garner 29% of the votes from those who favored complete withdrawal, an option Lieberman had consistently criticized as tantamount to supporting defeat. The exit polls confirmed that a narrow majority of those voting for Lieberman favored some measure of withdrawal.

Lieberman’s support in Point Six of his “ten point plan” for reducing U.S. troop levels in Iraq by means of the embedding strategy, and his opposition to sending any more troops to Iraq, had been sufficient to assure these voters that Lieberman would help find a way out of Iraq in an orderly manner. Lieberman had referred to this plan frequently while campaigning, and had made multiple references to it during the televised debates as a plan that would “bring our troops home.”

It was rather odd, therefore, that Tim Russert even posed the question to Lieberman on November 12, 2006, just five days after the election, when Lieberman followed John McCain as a guest on Meet The Press. Russert asked “do you share Senator McCain’s view that we should send in more American troops and either quote/unquote, “win the war” or withdraw?” Lieberman evaded the question completely, launching into an explanation of why he had changed positions so often on the subject of firing Rumsfeld. Russert persisted: “But should we send more troops in?”

It was indeed a strange question to ask a candidate who had proposed an Iraq plan that rejected sending more troops to Iraq unless one understood the peculiar rules of Meet The Press. McCain had just finished pushing his proposal for escalation of troop levels, and as everyone knew McCain and Lieberman were both mavericks and centrists (and of course good personal friends). A question to Lieberman regarding McCain’s proposal was therefore obligatory, even though Lieberman had rejected troop escalations throughout his campaign. And therefore Lieberman’s answer was as odd as Russert’s question:

“I think we have to be open to that, as, as a way to succeed, to achieve a free and independent Iraq, which would be an extraordinary accomplishment. But it’s got to be tied to a, to a new strategy, and it may be that it should be tied to commitments from the Iraqi government to, to disarm those militias and to bring more Sunnis into a national unity government. But, but I wouldn’t send more troops just for the sake of sending more troops. But I would if it’s tied to a success strategy.”

Lieberman was very careful in his response to say that any increase would have to be part of “a way to succeed” and “tied to a success strategy,” as if someone might have inferred that he would support committing more troops to a strategy of failure. His own “ten point plan” had been presented to Connecticut as a plan for success – “This 10-point plan is designed to succeed in Iraq and bring our troops home with honor” – and it had advocated fewer troops, not more troops. Lieberman obviously believed there were many paths to success in Iraq, which made it so frustrating that the U.S. wasn’t on any of them, and hadn’t appeared capable of even finding success in Iraq on a map, much less following a path there.

On Tuesday, Nov. 15th (three days after Lieberman’s MTP appearance and eight days after the election) Gen. Abizaid appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee. There were rumors that the administration might be considering sending more troops to Iraq, and rumors that the military, including Abizaid, opposed a troop increase. Abizaid must have known this issue would come up before the Committee, and his statements left little doubt where he stood on the issue.

LINSEY GRAHAM: Do we need more American troops at the moment to quell the violence?

ABIZAID: No, I do not believe that more American troops right now is the solution to the problem.

Sen. Bill Nelson revisited the issue with Abizaid, and he pressed hard on the issue of whether Anbar province required more troops.

BILL NELSON: So give us -- you have stated to Senator Graham that you don't need a change in the troops right now. But the commentary coming out of Anbar by General Zilmer and General Neller would indicate otherwise.

ABIZAID: I understand that. I've come talked it over with those commanders out there. I think our main effort is where it's been designated, which is in the Baghdad area. That's where it needs to stay to be. I think that we have made progress in Baghdad. We're going to continue to make progress in Baghdad, and that we do need more troops. And the more troops we need are Iraqis.

If there was any doubt about Abizaid’s position on increasing U.S. troop levels in Iraq, his exchange with McCain seemed to resolve the matter. McCain bore in with a mix of incredulity, skepticism and even disdain for any suggestion that more U.S. troops were not needed in Iraq(NB: I've attached a video of McCain's question of Abizaid at the end of this post) .

MCCAIN: Did you note that General Zinni, who opposed the invasion, now thinks that we should have more troops? Did you notice that General Batiste, who was opposed to the conduct of this conflict also says that they may need tens of
thousands of additional troops?

I don't understand, General. When you have a part of Iraq that's not under our control -- as Al Anbar Province is, which has been -- I don't know how many American lives have been sacrificed in Al Anbar Province, but we still have enough and we will rely on the ability to train the Iraqi military, when the Iraqi army hasn't sent the requested number of battalions into Baghdad.

ABIZAID: Senator McCain, I met with every divisional commander, General Casey, the core commander, General Dempsey. We all talked together. And I said, in your professional opinion, if we were to bring in more American troops now, does it add considerably to our ability to achieve success in Iraq? And they all said no. And the reason is, because we want the Iraqis to do more. It's easy for the Iraqis to rely upon to us do this work. I believe that more American forces prevent the Iraqis from doing more, from taking more responsibility for their own future.

By the time questioning of Abizaid reached Lieberman, the General had taken quite a pummeling. The democrats were not satisfied with his unwillingness to advocate any withdrawal, but the sharpest questioning came from Graham and McCain, each of whom were very critical of his insistence that U.S. troop levels in Iraq not be increased. And so Abizaid must have welcomed Lieberman’s turn at questioning, because Abizaid had been consistently arguing throughout the hearing the very policy Lieberman had proposed in Point Six of his “ten point plan”: increase the number of U.S. troops embedded in Iraqi units, draw the incremental “embeds” by redploying troops already in Iraq rather than sending more, and begin to drawdown troop levels as the embedding strategy succeeded in strengthening the ability of the Iraqi forces to take the lead in defending the Iraqi government and maintaining order in Iraq.

Lieberman began his questioning by eliciting from Abizaid his opinion that the “phased redeployment” proposals of many democrats, which contemplated beginning within four to six months a gradual drawdown of U.S. troops according to a timetable or deadline, would leave Iraq in chaos. Abizaid and Lieberman were in total accord on this issue, and Lieberman’s questioning of Abizaid perfectly consistent with his position during the campaign that the U.S. should draw down troop levels but only as permitted by the progress of the embedding strategy, and not pursuant to a timetable.

LIEBERMAN: General, I want to ask you, you've said that the military transition teams, the American embedded with the Iraqi security forces, are probably having a very significant, positive affect on those forces and that our forces embedded with the Iraqis should be -- I believe you said in your initial testimony -- significantly increased.

How can we do that without increasing the overall number of American troops in Iraq? In other words, I fear that the only other way to do it is to pull our troops out of other danger areas, like Anbar Province, and then they'll fall into more chaos.

Lieberman’s apparent concern that Anbar and other trouble spots might deteriorate if troops in Iraq were redeployed to increase embedding did not appear to reflect Lieberman’s own position, which unequivocally posited the additional U.S. troops embedded in Iraqi units should come from the redeployment of U.S. troops already in Iraq. Abizaid must have assumed that Lieberman was a tossing him a softball in the form of an opportunity to confirm that increased embedding through redeployment – the Lieberman/Abizaid approach – would not adversely affect the situation in Anbar. Certainly Abizaid’s very direct and brief response suggests that he didn’t perceive the question to be hostile.

ABIZAID: I can't say for sure that we can do it without having to increase our overall troop levels. But I believe that there is a way to make the transition teams more robust from within the existing force structure inside Iraq.

Lieberman’s reaction to Abizaid’s reiteration of his opposition to increased troop levels must have surprised the General. More than any other Senator, Lieberman had emphasized the significance of the embedding strategy. McCain and Graham viewed embedding as advisable but a mere adjunct to the necessity of increasing troop levels. Democratic Senators favoring “phased redeployment” also appeared to support the embedding stategy, but like their hawkish counterparts viewed it as ancillary to their primary objective (in the case of the Democrats, reducing troop levels on the basis of a timeline, regardless of the pace or success of the embedding strategy). For Lieberman, embedding was the key to his withdrawal policy. Embedded U.S. troops require less logistical support, Lieberman had argued in Point Six of his plan, and therefore permitted a reduction of U.S. forces in Iraq. And, best of all, according to Lieberman’s plan, was that incremental embedding could be achieved from the existing U.S. force structure in Iraq, as Abizaid had just confirmed numerous times in his testimony. But Lieberman’s response to Abizaid’s seeming support was a halting, syntactically mangled plea for Abizaid to seek the authority for more troops in Iraq – the very option Lieberman’s ten point plan had rejected during the campaign.

LIEBERMAN: I hope that you will take a look at and not hesitate, most directly as the commander in chief, to give you authority to send more troops in if you really feel that the embedding -- and I do feel strongly that the embedding is working best to enable the Iraqi security forces to take over. And it may be that a short-term increase in our forces there, embedded with them, will be the best way for us to more quickly get to a point where we can actually draw down our forces.

There is of course a difference between advocating that one seek authority for a particular act and advocating the act itself, and Lieberman’s parting remarks to Abizaid cannot fairly be said to represent a call more troops in Iraq. But it was a clear shift in Lieberman’s views regarding the means by which the U.S. would find troops for increased embedding. Lieberman’s conviction that the embedding strategy could be implemented by the redeployment of U.S. troops already in Iraq appeared to have weakened, if not collapsed.


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