The Democratic electoral victory and the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld are both hopeful developments for the war effort in Iraq, the former because it signals clearly that the American public has lost patience with the current failed strategy and the latter because Mr. Rumsfeld was its principal architect and civilian custodian. This institutional sea change naturally raises the question of what can and should be done differently going forward. The departure of Rumsfeld is likely to be the most important development in the long and short term. With Robert Gates as the new Secretary of Defense the US General Staff will feel more confident to assert their prerogative in charting the course of the conflict, a trend that is sure to produce profound changes in tactics and overall strategy. As the resolution of the Iraq conflict requires political maneuvers as much as military, however, there are steps that the civilian leadership can take right away that will assist Coalition forces in their task. Moreover, they are steps in which both Defense and Congress may participate.
The clearest and easiest policy shift that would help move the conflict toward resolution is for the US government to forswear maintaining any permanent military bases in Iraq. Such a move would bleed both the Sunni insurgency and provocateurs such as Moqtada al-Sadr of a great deal of political capital. The clear wisdom of this policy is so evident that it cries out for an explanation as to why the Bush administration has not embraced it already. The only real risk it entails is to foster the impression that the US is capitulating to terrorist pressure, but given the benefits at stake such a consideration only argues for the policy to be adopted as soon as possible. The longer the US waits to renounce a permanent military presence in Iraq the more it courts political embarrassment for doing so, but no matter how high that liability gets ratcheted up the inescapable necessity of renunciation will remain.
Why, then, has the Bush administration tarried? The only ultimately logical answer is oil. If we take Bush regime pronouncements at face value this conflict has always been driven by a "big theory" strategy to foster US security in the extreme long term. One does not have to be entirely cynical about Bush assertions of "promoting democracy" to deduce that the regime closely associate the long-term security of the US with the assurance of access to oil reserves. Any argument about the true nature or moral status of such motives is now moot, as an enduring US military presence in Iraq is simply not a sustainable strategy if a positive resolution to the current conflict is ever to be found. One of the potential long-term benefits of the nascent shift in US "Iraq politics" is thus a corresponding shift away from allowing fossil fuel dependency to drive foreign policy and towards using domestic policy to decrease or eliminate dependency on fossil fuels.
The first step, however, is a renunciation of permanent US bases in Iraq, a policy that both Defense and Congress should move to insititutionalize immediately, preferably in concert. New construction on bases should be halted, and contingency plans laid for the disassembly of current facilities or their staged transfer to the Iraqi Army. Congress can help effect this strategy by writing it into law, preferably with the input of both Defense and Centcom. The wording of such legislation would have to be worked out carefully, as it should not place artificial constraints on the current military conduct of the conflict. A simple solution might be to place a deadline for dismantlement or transferal far in the future- five to ten years hence. Such legislation would do much to deflect criticism of the Coalition mission as "neocolonial" and sap insurgent propoganda of most of its vitality and appeal.