No Turn on Iraq Until 2009, Udall Predicts

Only one way exists to change the direction of the war in Iraq before January 2009, Colorado Congressman Mark Udall said. Though Democrats control both the U.S. House and Senate, the fate of a strategic shift in the next 15 months rests with Republicans.

“If we’re going to change before 2009, it’s going to be because Republicans say to the President, ‘We’re going to side with the Democrats.’ That’s the only way they can put pressure on the President so he changes and takes another approach.”

After listening two days ago to the testimony of Gen. David Petraeus on progress in Iraq and after gauging the reaction of his GOP colleagues, Udall doesn’t see the Congressional coalition forming.

With Petraeus’ testimony, Udall said, George W. Bush “was conducting a primary on foreign policy within his own party. He won for now.”

Moderate Republicans who would be needed to vote for a phased withdrawal from Iraq and to override the presidential veto of such a policy have instead taken up the call to “stay the course,” as Petraeus advised.

“I’d like to see a new direction before 2009,” Udall said. “But I don’t see the will in the Commander-in-Chief, and I don’t see the will among Republicans.”

Failing a revolt by Congressional Republicans, Bush will likely leave office with 130,000 American troops in Iraq and no end in sight.

“General Petraeus announced draw downs (in troop strength),” said Udall, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. But the so-called “surge” of forces that was supposed to stabilize violence and let Iraqi politicians gain control of their country increased the number of U.S. troops. So the troop withdrawals Petraeus recommended only get America back to where it started.

“Troop levels (under the White House plan) will be the same as Election Day 2006,” Udall predicted.

That makes the 2008 elections even more of a referendum on Iraq than the 2006 elections, when Republicans lost control of both the U.S. Senate and House.

Petraeus pushed a long-term strategy that will leave significant numbers of American troops in Iraq for a long, long time. How different that estimation is than the promises of Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as they – with Congressional approval – led the American people into a pre-emptive invasion of a sovereign nation that they insisted would secure this country from terrorism and liberate Iraq in a matter of years.

Given those lies, what now seems likely was perhaps destined to be the end game in Iraq all along – a disastrous experiment in nation-building concluded by frustrated voters forced to fill leadership voids left by the President and the Congress.

It’s a good bet that waiting for 2009 changes in the White House and Congress will cost more American casualties than beginning a phased, timed pull out of U.S. forces in 2008.

Still, no matter who controls Congress or the White House in January 2009, we’re now talking about decades of some kind of caretaker presence in Iraq.

Not even Udall, who voted against the war and runs for the Senate next year in hopes of breaking through that body’s gridlock on the fight, can offer an easy alternative.

Petraeus asked for more time to let the current strategy in Iraq work.

“But,” said Udall, “this is fourth or fifth time we’ve been told, ‘Just wait.’ You can’t start over. There’s not a Mulligan here.”

The congressman quickly apologized for using a golf analogy in something as serious as Iraq. In fact, the reference to re-taking a bad golf shot without a penalty was the perfect comparison. The shots you take in war always come with a price. 

“There’s been ethnic cleansing in Baghdad,” said Udall. “Sixty percent of Iraqis say it’s OK to kill Americans because we’re seen as occupiers, not liberators. Two million people have left Iraq, many of them the educated and professional. We’ve spent hundreds of billions of dollars on the war and tens of billions of that have been badly spent.

“Once you’ve torn a society apart, you can’t put it back together.”

 As true as that observation is, Udall had an even more profound one.

“Once you go to war,” he said, “it is hard to extricate yourself.”