Both the US House and Senate have passed spending bills that fully fund the Bush regime's Iraq deployment yet place provisional constraints on its continuing duration. The White House and its spin machine are in full lockhorn mode, broadcasting the message that if and when George W. Bush vetoes this legislation Congress will be guilty of starving the troops and leaving them bootless. The brazeness of this politicking would be impressive if the message was not so derivative. This is old wine in a new bottle- no matter how badly the Bush White House mismanages the Iraq policy it always comes back to somehow being Congress' fault.
In typical Bush regime fashion, the divisive belligerence of this latest offensive comes unalloyed with any empirical assessment of whether Congress' very mild conditions are in any way an impairment of current policy. An objective assessment would have to conclude that Congress' legislation can only enhance, not impair, the chances of the ongoing Baghdad security plan. The President's "surge" seems to have made some headway in reducing violence in the Iraqi capital. But there is no indication that any of what has been achieved depends on Baghdadis' belief that the surge will be permanent or enduring, quite the contrary.
We have seen no arrests of major militia leaders, no stockpiles of guns confiscated from Shi'ite paramilitaries. The security plan's access to neighborhoods like Sadr City was obviously brokered by a negotiated truce between the Shi'ite militias and US Centcom. Would that truce hold if groups like the Mahdi Army felt that US troops would be patrolling Sadr City indefinitely? This seems highly unlikely. One strongly suspects that one of the conditions which has made it possible for joint US-Iraqi Army teams to patrol through Sadr City in force and unmolested is the understanding that the "surge" is a temporary state of affairs.
This fact is underscored by the recent actions by Iran's Revolutionary Guard. The seizing of British marines and the escalation of that hostage drama on the world's television screens would be puzzling given all of the saber-rattling occasioned by Iran's nuclear program. Such actions would seem to be tempting fate, unless Tehran felt that the precariousness of the Baghdad security plan allowed it to bargain from a position of strength. Why the marines were seized and what Tehran hopes to gain from this fiasco are questions about which I would not speculate. But Tehran seems to feel that the prevailing homeostasis in Baghdad precludes US military action against Iran for the moment, and in this they are probably correct. As soon as American bombs hit Iranian targets Baghdad would most likely become a much deadlier place for US forces, as their prevailing truce with Shi'ite militias collapsed.
The fact that Shi'ite militias view the US surge as temporary does not preclude it from achieving provisional gains. Groups like the Mahdi Army are no doubt lying low in the assumption that once the surge winds down they can go back to business as usual. US Centcom must know that this is the case, but are counting on the fact that any window in which the Iraqi military and police can be shown as taking even partial control over security throughout Baghdad will help normalize these institutions and solidify their authority, making a return to unrestrained militia mayhem impossible. Whatever the merits of this plan, it is all too likely that the longer it is sustained the more it will encounter a harsh margin of diminishing returns. If Iraqi military and police effectiveness is seen to depend too much for too long upon an increased US troop presence, the Iraqi people's faith in the security plan will erode and its long-term impact will be squandered.
Congress' moves to limit the duration of the surge and the US deployment more generally are thus in accord with the general climate of expectations that may facilitate its provisional success. If anything, Congress' restraints did not go far enough in curbing the White House's tactical profligacy. The security situation in Iraq will only improve for the long term if and when the US openly commits to a complete withrdrawal from Iraq and complete autonomy for the Iraqi government and military. Mr. Bush would be wise to sign Congress' legislation, if he does not the only one to blame for depriving the troops will be he himself. Let him veto the bill and let every Republican representative and senator campaign while trying to explain why he or she did not vote to override. Mr. Bush's faith that his current rhetoric will be politically effective embodies the same kind of miscalculation that cost the Republicans so dearly in the mid-term election.