Before a packed house including Vice Presidential daughter Liz Cheney and former VP aide Mary Matalin, Iraq surge godfathers Frederick Kagan and Gen. Jack Keane faced off against a proponent of a phased withdrawal from Iraq at a discussion at the American Enterprise Institute today. "I think I am the designated skunk at the AEI surge garden party," said James Miller, of the new centrist think tank, Center for a New American Security, a former Clinton era deputy assistant secretary of defense, from the panel. And in a way, that's exactly what he was meant to be.
Miller is the co-author of a recent CNAS Iraq report, Phased Transition, that argues that the U.S. should reduce its troop presence in Iraq by 100,000 troops over the next year, and withdraw completely over the next five years. By arguing for a planned phased withdrawal, Miller says his plan hopes to avoid what it sees as the likely alternative: a precipitous withdrawal in January 2009 when the Bush administration leaves office. The report also argues for an increased advisory role for the U.S. in Iraq.
AEI military expert Tom Donnelly recently brought out the big guns, taking to the pages of the Weekly Standard (several floors below AEI) in an article entitled "Orderly Humiliation" to tar the CNAS report as the "Clintonista" plan -- in case any potential moderate Republican supporters of such a plan didn't understand CNAS' genetic bloodlines. Conservative scholar Max Boot went after it on the op-ed pages of the Los Angeles Times the same week. Such coordinated critiques as well as today's event indicate that the architects of the Iraq invasion and the surge are nervous about the political pressure growing on the White House to rethink the U.S. strategy and reduce the U.S. troop presence in Iraq. Pressure that is increasingly coming from Senate Republicans.
At the AEI event today, Miller argued that the surge had had two goals: 1) reducing the violence in Iraq, particularly in Baghdad, and 2) facilitating political reconciliation. He said that violence has partially subsided in Baghdad but is now increasing elsewhere; and that there has been essentially zero progress in furthering political reconciliation among Iraq's ethnic groups.
Kagan, a bespectacled resident scholar at AEI, argued, contra Miller, that the surge is showing signs of political progress. "Are we so impatient? Are the stakes so low? Is it easier to declare failure?"
An Iraq expert who attended the event comments, "The AEI crowd thinks that we are making real progress, should ignore politics at home, and cut the Iraqi government some slack ... They completely fail to grasp that in pursuing the surge until our country is strategically and politically exhausted, and not thinking about a transitional presence as part of a responsible withdrawal, they will end up triggering a precipitous withdrawal the minute Bush leaves office."
The AEI debate on this sweltering Washington day drew the kind of crowd you would expect to see for the kind of high stakes event the think tank ran during the height of the Iraq invasion. And the stakes are high: while the panel moderator Danielle Pletka mourned at the end everyone was only talking about the surge in the context of U.S. domestic politics, and not U.S. national security, the event organizers too are arguing for a strategy they see as urgently necessary for political vindication, but one that has lost the support of the vast majority of the American public. As the presence of Cheney daughter Liz and aide Matalin attest, the public debate continues a private discussion with a more receptive audience of two in the White House.