Petraeus' view — and we will not know the all-important nuances until later — is that the surge has improved the security environment to some extent and in some areas but has not achieved a decisive strategic breakthrough. Petraeus also agrees with the NIE that the Iraqi government has failed to take form, and that Iraqi forces are not going to be able to take over security responsibilities from the United States.
Unlike the NIE, Petraeus has been charged with making recommendations. It appears he will not suggest a shift in the basic U.S. strategy; instead, he will argue that unless U.S. forces continue to be responsible for the security of Iraq, the country's fragility will cause a general collapse. It is also clear that Petraeus regards this as an unacceptable outcome that the United States must not allow. It is not clear to what extent he believes continued U.S. operations under the current mission will solve the problem, but he seems to be saying this worst-case scenario has to be avoided.
Petraeus is also likely to call for a reduction of U.S. forces in Iraq, though such a reduction probably would not begin for another three to six months. This is less a policy than a reality. The United States cannot maintain current troop levels in Iraq without extending tours beyond 15 months, which the U.S. Army has said is virtually impossible. With a drawdown of about one brigade per month beginning in early spring, the United States will still have well over 100,000 troops in Iraq on Election Day. Undoubtedly, more reductions would take place in a withdrawal scheduled to last at least two years. In short, Petraeus will recommend what we discussed a few weeks ago as option two, which we regard as the worst choice — a fixed mission with reduced forces. Petraeus clearly views it differently.
The question now is what Congress will say. The Democratic leadership is signaling that it will reluctantly accept Petraeus' recommendation. But the Democrats are less reluctant than they appear. Endorsing Petraeus would allow them to at least partially shed their reputation of being weak on national security as they move toward the 2008 presidential election. They also will go into the election with the war continuing to rage, casualties mounting and — if Petraeus and the NIE's view of the political situation in Baghdad holds — no end in sight. All this will give Hillary Clinton and the congressional Democrats the perfect platform from which to attempt to engineer a political earthquake. They will be reluctantly pro-war, given Bush's failures, and argue that they could do no worse.
The focus now is on the congressional Republicans and the various Republican candidates — whether they will go into November 2008, only a little over a year away, with the war raging, victory nowhere in sight and unable to blame the Democrats for undercutting the president. Petraeus has thrown them a live hand grenade; if they follow his recommendations and the most likely scenario takes place, they will be running for election with more than 100,000 troops in a war that has been going on for more than five years and threatens to continue for at least several more. If they buck the president and engage in a public brawl while the Democrats hang back, they are also in trouble.
It is not surprising that the Democratic leadership has chosen this strategy, and it is likely they can keep the anti-war Democrats in check. The pressure on Bush will not come from them; it will come from the Republicans — very quietly and intensely. Bush is unlikely to listen. More Republican candidates likely will decide not to run. Apart from the war in Iraq, a sea change in U.S. politics could be triggered.