Friday, January 19, 2007

Withdrawal...With Honor (Part Two of the Lieberman Project)

"We are now embedding a core of coalition forces in every Iraqi fighting unit, which makes each unit more effective and acts as a multiplier of our forces. ..Nationwide, American military leaders estimate that about one-third of the approximately 100,000 members of the Iraqi military are able to 'lead the fight' themselves with logistical support from the U.S., and that that number should double by next year. If that happens, American military forces could begin a drawdown in numbers proportional to the increasing self-sufficiency of the Iraqi forces in 2006.” Lieberman, WSJ, 11/29/2005

“The situation in Iraq is a lot better, different than it was a year ago. The Iraqis held three elections. They formed a unity government. They are on the way to building a free and independent Iraq. Their military -- two-thirds of their military is now ready, on their own, to lead the fight with some logistical backing from the U.S. or stand up on their own totally. That's progress…So I am confident that the situation is improving enough on the ground that by the end of this year, we will begin to draw down significant numbers of American troops, and by the end of the next year more than half of the troops who are there now will be home.” Lieberman, debate, 7/7/2006

"There really has been progress made by the Iraqi military. Two-thirds of it could stand on its own or lead the fight with our logistical support." Lieberman, speaking with the Conn. Post editorial board, 7/25/2006

By Lieberman’s own estimation American troops were ready to start coming home. His November 2005 WSJ op-ed had endorsed the view of U.S. military commanders that if two-thirds of the 100,000 Iraqi military were ready to “lead the fight” that the U.S. could begin a drawdown of its troops. By July, as Lieberman’s once massive lead over Lamont continued to erode, Lieberman was asserting that the two-thirds benchmark had been achieved, and that conditions in Iraq were conducive to a reduction of U.S. troop levels by year end.

The problem for Lieberman was that Democratic voters in Connecticut, particularly the party activists most likely to vote in the August Democratic primary, didn’t seem to buy Lieberman’s analysis of conditions in Iraq. Democrats were dismissive of Lieberman’s projection of troop withdrawal by the end of the year, believing such projections to be based on a view of the situation in Iraq that appeared completely untethered from reality, and concluding therefore that the Lieberman’s projected withdrawals were conditional on positive developments in Iraq that were increasingly unlikely to occur. Although eager to embrace projections of troop withdrawals, they simply could not reconcile Lieberman’s assurances of progress in Iraq with daily reports of rising sectarian violence in Iraq, and therefore found his withdrawal projections lacking in credibility. As long as Lieberman persisted in tying his prediction of year-end troop withdrawals to absurdly optimistic assurances of continued progress in Iraq, his implied support for withdrawal by the end of 2006 would be viewed by Connecticut democrats with extreme skepticism.

Although Connecticut polls prior to the July 7, 2006 debate between Lieberman and Lamont still gave Lieberman a double-digit lead, momentum was distinctly on Lamont’s side. The debate did nothing to stem the tide. Within two weeks of the debate polls were showing Lamont with the lead, a lead which grew in late July and early August to more than ten points before contracting in the days immediately before the August 8th primary.

Faced with the very real prospect of losing the Democratic primary Lieberman finally resolved to squarely address the perception among democrats in Connecticut that he would not support withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq unless Iraq had been substantially pacified.

As anyone would have to agree, you don’t get elected to the U.S. Senate three times without being highly attuned to the perceptions of the voters. While it was too late for Lieberman to repudiate his panglossian assessment of the situation in Iraq, he could at least seek to reassure Democrats that he would support phased withdrawal if the Iraqis proved either unable or unwilling to effectively counter rising sectarian violence; that under either circumstance – progress in Iraq or descent into civil war – he would support withdrawal subject only to the qualification that such withdrawal not be tied to a timetable or some “arbitrary” deadline.

On Tuesday, August 2nd, one week prior to the Democratic primary, New York Times reporters Jennifer Medina and Nicholas Confessore traveled to Connecticut to interview the struggling incumbent, meeting with him at campaign stops in Colchester and Killingworth. The day before a dozen leading Democrats in Congress has released a letter sent to Bush urging a “more limited mission” for U.S. troops in Iraq and calling for “phased redeployment” to commence by the end of the year. Lieberman, while expressing continued confidence that progress in Iraq would permit troops withdrawals by the end of the year, emphasized that he had declined to sign letter because it “set too strict a deadline”, according to the Times article. Later that day, perhaps out of concern that his interview with the Times had not achieved his purpose of softening his stance on the question of withdrawal, Lieberman told the Times reporters that his views on the war had been misunderstood.

''There are people I meet who think that I believe we should stay there indefinitely, regardless of what Iraqis are doing -- I don't,'' Lieberman told the Times.

To the extent Lieberman was now arguing that his support for keeping U.S. troops in Iraq was conditional on the Iraqis, the implication was clear: if the Iraqis and their elected government were not doing enough to bring their country back from the precipice of civil war, Lieberman would support a phased withdrawal if the pace of withdrawal were not telegraphed to the enemy in the form of a publicly announced timetable or deadline.

Lieberman no doubt would still maintain that he had not expressed a changed position on the war in his interviews with the Times on August 2nd, that his reservations regarding proposals for withdrawal had always been based on his opposition to timelines and deadlines, and did not represent rejection of withdrawal per se, but rather a belief that withdrawal should proceed on the basis of the continued success of the embedding strategy and the capability of the Iraqi forces to “lead the fight.”

In fairness to Lieberman, his quoted remarks in the Times article differed from his prior statements more in tone and emphasis than substance. However, if as the Times suggested Lieberman’s remarks were notable primarily for being “among his most detailed” he had offered on the subject of the war, the incremental detail (particularly his statements indicating his differences with democratic colleagues in Congress who had signed the Bush letter were limited to the inclusion of a timetable) clearly suggested a marked softening of his opposition to proposals for withdrawal, and invited an inference that he would support withdrawal even in the face of continued deterioration in Iraq if the Iraqis were not holding up their end of the bargain in confronting the forces of sectarian violence. This inference seemed more than justified based on the reporting in the edition of the New York Times that appeared on the newsstands the morning of August 3rd.

“44 Are Killed In Attacks Aimed At Iraqi Security Forces” was the report from the Baghdad bureau of the New York Times.

“Lieberman Backs Troop Withdrawal but Not Timetable of Other Democrats” was the report from Colchester and Killingworth in Connecticut.

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