For the first time in a generation, the American body politic has stumbled into this predicament, lacking the consensus either to sustain a costly war or to plausibly end it.
Consider the increasing isolation of President Bush, who is buying time to stave off congressional Democrats but is most afraid of rising defections in his own party and of the faltering loyalty of the nation's military elite.
When the administration recently floated the new job of "war czar," not only did at least five retired four-star generals turn down a wartime president -- an almost unheard-of vote of no confidence -- but one general dramatically shattered civil-military protocol by publicly excoriating the commander-in-chief's leadership.
"The very fundamental issue is, they don't know where the hell they are going," retired Marine Corps Gen. John (Jack) Sheehan told The Washington Post.
For their part, congressional Democrats are torn between a desire to politically punish the Bush administration and to force a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, and a fear of overreaching and owning the ugly endgame of a lost war. The party went down that road with Vietnam in the early 1970s and bore the brand of "weak on defense" for decades.
Today, tensions are flaring between the party's liberal base that wants out of Iraq now and Democratic presidential candidates who worry about inheriting the blowback of a precipitous exit.
In the meantime, U.S. military leaders have one eye trained on a determined enemy in Iraq and the other on faltering political support back home, even as the war dangerously saps their forces' strength. Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, talks about a conflict waged almost in parallel dimensions, one that runs on Washington time and the other dictated by events in Baghdad.
"The Washington clock is moving more rapidly than the Baghdad clock," Petraeus said in a televised interview. "So we're obviously trying to speed up the Baghdad clock a bit to produce some progress on the ground that can, perhaps ... put a little more time on the Washington clock."
This, then, is a story about when and how -- not if -- the Washington clock runs down. If Bush is successful, the time on that clock will expire after the November 2008 election, when he passes the Iraq problem to the next president and surrenders his legacy to history. Democrats are determined to make the sands run out on Bush's "surge" strategy much sooner -- the better to begin the long homeward march of U.S. troops on the watch of the president who sent them to Iraq in the first place.
What U.S. military experts know about those discordant timelines, but what many of their fellow Americans seem to hardly grasp, is that regardless of when it occurs, the expiration of the political clock will not be the end. Rather, it will mark the beginning of the most challenging and potentially calamitous phase of the Iraq war.
"There's an old military adage that the most dangerous and hazardous of all military maneuvers is a withdrawal of forces while in contact with the enemy. That's the operation all of us soldiers fear the most," retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, a former commandant of the Army War College, told National Journal.
Some experts argue that the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq will remove a major irritant and thus facilitate a resolution to the conflict, Scales noted, and others believe that a U.S. pullout could prompt chaos, massive bloodletting, and even genocide.
"And if anyone insists that they know which it will be," he said, "they are lying. The truth is, we don't have enough understanding or insight into the thousands of intangibles to know what forces will drive the dynamic inside Iraq once we begin pulling out."
Running Out the Clock
On April 12, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., sat on a cushioned chair in his Capitol conference room with other party leaders, contemplating the question of withdrawal timelines. He looked up at the reporters squeezed into the room, their tape recorders humming on the coffee table before him.
"Twenty more months," he said, referring to the remaining time in Bush's term. "It doesn't matter whether a Democrat or a Republican is elected president, that timeline is very clear. We'll be gone from Iraq for sure by then. The question is, what do we do in the interim?"
The numerous Democratic presidential contenders have made no secret of what they would like to do. In a recent online discussion hosted by the anti-war group MoveOn.org, they offered their competing timetables for American troop withdrawals from Iraq. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio: begin immediately. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.: start in three months. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson: get out by the end of this year. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.: start on May 1, and wrap up by the end of March 2008.
Because the Democrats want out and Bush wants to stay, the congressional leaders' goal for ending the war is either to force the president to change his strategy through legislation, or to persuade him to change through political pressure. Their central argument is that the continuing presence of U.S. forces in Iraq is fueling, not quelling, the violence. But the math and the politics are simple: Democrats need Republicans, either to enact legislation or to exert pressure.
To pass legislation, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other House Democratic leaders must come up with only a simple majority, which they have found twice so far on Iraq. On February 16, they passed a nonbinding resolution by a 246-182 vote that disapproved of Bush's 20,000-plus troop increase, and on March 23, they eked out a 218-212 victory to approve their fiscal 2007 war supplemental spending bill that included an August 2008 deadline for a troop pullout.
But in the Senate, Reid maintains a razor-thin 51-49 majority, and he needs a supermajority of 60 votes, or the consent of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to even move controversial legislation.
Reid got neither of those on two votes earlier this year to bring up the nonbinding Iraq troop-surge resolution. In fact, McConnell consented to a vote on the Senate's version of the supplemental, which included the nonbinding withdrawl deadline of March 2008, only because he knew Bush would veto it.
The Senate passed the spending bill 51-47 on March 29, with two Republicans voting for it and with Democrats' losing only Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.
At this point, neither Reid nor Pelosi has anywhere near the two-thirds majority -- 67 votes in the Senate and 290 in the House -- needed to override the looming Bush veto, because most Republicans still stand by their president. Indeed, Reid cannot yet reach the lower threshold of 60 votes to invoke cloture and overcome GOP filibusters. Lieberman will vote against him on Iraq and Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., is not voting while he continues to recover from brain surgery.
Sitting with Reid in his conference room recently, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., the No. 3 party leader, explained the Democrats' strategy for picking up Republican support for a withdrawal timetable: Make them vote over and over on an unpopular war until their resolve crumbles.
"We're going to keep at it, and at least it's my belief that they're going to have to break," Schumer said. "It's not going to prevail on one vote, or two, but it will after five, six, seven ..."
The Democrats plan to ratchet up the pressure steadily on Republicans through the fall -- a time when many lawmakers have indicated that they expect to see results from Bush's troop increase. The pressure, which started with the anti-surge resolutions in January and February and carried into the war supplemental debate in March and April, will continue as Congress takes up the fiscal 2008 Defense authorization and appropriations bills beginning in May and June.
Some Democrats have even suggested that, after a Bush veto, they will pass a reduced supplemental with funds lasting only a few months, forcing a debate and vote on another supplemental later on.
Democrats may attach a variety of war-related proposals to those bills -- or to any other legislation that hits the Senate floor -- to force Republicans to cast difficult votes. These include measures to limit tours of duty, impede the deployment of units that are rated less than 100 percent ready, and provide firm political benchmarks that the Iraqi government must meet or else pay the consequences. Democrats also intend to use their oversight powers to keep the heat on the administration, with hearings already planned on a number of war issues.
Democrats are emboldened in their confrontational approach by polls showing that the American public is on their side. In a late-February ABC News/Washington Post poll, 56 percent of respondents said they strongly opposed Bush's troop increase and wanted U.S. troops withdrawn from Iraq. A more recent ABC/Post poll, published on April 17, found that respondents trusted Democrats' handling of Iraq over Bush's, 58 percent to 33 percent; 51 percent supported an August 2008 withdrawal deadline.
Schumer on April 12 cited polls showing that when red-state respondents are told that their senator has voted with the president on Iraq, his or her public support drops. "The war in Iraq is a lead weight attached to their ankles," he said of Republican lawmakers.
The Difficult Math
Regardless of that increasing weight, Democrats eager for an Iraq withdrawal timeline are nonetheless facing a tough road to get to 60 votes in the Senate, and an even tougher one to get to 67. Assuming Democratic unity, minus Lieberman and Johnson, Reid has 49 votes, so he needs 11 Republican votes to shut down filibusters.
Reid won over only seven GOP defectors in the February vote to bring up the resolution opposing Bush's troop increase. Two of those seven, Sens. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Gordon Smith, R-Ore., also voted for the supplemental's withdrawal timelines, and they have been the most vocal GOP critics of the president's war strategy.
Hagel is a White House contender, and Smith is up for re-election next year in a politically competitive state. That's also the case for three of the other Republicans who voted with the Democrats on the nonbinding resolution, Sens. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Susan Collins of Maine, and John Warner of Virginia.
The other two are moderates who have expressed concerns about the progress of the war, Sens. Olympia Snowe of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
Even with those seven GOP votes, Reid is four shy of 60. To get those, he would need to tap into the next tier of Republicans who have doubts about the war, including Sens. George Voinovich of Ohio and Sam Brownback of Kansas. Some of these lawmakers, however, defer to the president's role as commander-in-chief and have reacted against what they see as the Democrats' Bush-bashing. Even if Johnson were well enough to vote, finding 17 Republicans to vote with Reid to override a Bush veto would be a tall -- perhaps impossible -- order.
If Democrats cannot reach a veto-proof majority, some lawmakers still believe a compromise might ultimately be possible on Iraq. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., has suggested that Democrats could find common ground with the president if he agreed to enforce benchmarks for the Iraqi government with real consequences, in exchange for the Democrats' dropping demands for a withdrawal deadline.
"The issue is, will the president keep the commitment that he made to the American people in January that the Iraqi leaders are going to meet the benchmarks for political settlement that they set for themselves, such as sharing resources, sharing power, getting a de-Baathification law passed, and 14 other things," Levin told National Journal. "That's the issue. There is no funding issue. We're going to fund the troops."
Stalling for Time
Vice President Cheney wasn't exactly talking compromise during his April 15 appearance on CBS's Face the Nation. He said he was "willing to bet" that Democrats, whom he repeatedly criticized, would eventually submit to Bush's demands for a war spending bill with no strings attached. "I do believe that positions that the Democratic leaders have taken, to a large extent now, are irresponsible," he said.
Cheney's message was in keeping with the White House's strategy of stalling for time on Iraq: provide red meat to the Republican base that still supports Bush's policies, thus minimizing likely GOP defections in Congress; use the veto pen and the bully pulpit to condemn Democrats as micromanaging the generals in Iraq and starving the troops of needed funds, capitalizing on the public's strong backing for the U.S. military; and keep up the troop surge in Baghdad in hopes of improving conditions and lowering the temperature on the war debate back home.
Cheney's repeated castigating of Democrats as "irresponsible" reveals the White House's calculation that under Reid and Pelosi's leadership, the opposition has badly overplayed its hand in attacking the president and trying to legislate withdrawal deadlines.
"That was just too much for Republicans to swallow," said a White House official who asked to speak on background. The Democrats "overreached, big-time."
The ultimate success of the White House strategy may largely depend on what happens in Iraq between now and the fall, when even many Republicans have said they will be looking for signs of quantifiable progress. During a recent speech to the Republican National Lawyers Association, for instance, McConnell insisted that the surge has to be given a chance to succeed.
"Success doesn't mean an instant, Western-style democracy, but a success, you know, means at least a reasonably functional capital city in Baghdad, where the government has a chance to succeed," he said. In response to a question from National Journal, McConnell cited reports that things are getting better in Baghdad, but he offered a familiar caveat.
"It's still a very tough city, and we see reports every day of atrocities of one kind or another," he said. "No one would argue that the city is entirely secure or that the surge mission has yet been completed."
The potential Achilles' heel of the White House strategy is that it relies on events in Iraq that are, to a large degree, outside of U.S. control. In a move that further weakened an already shaky Iraqi government, for instance, six Cabinet members loyal to radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr quit their jobs on April 16 to protest the government's unwillingness to back a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Administration officials and congressional Republicans also know that a catastrophic attack like the 2006 bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra could dramatically weaken their position, a calculation that is also likely to have occurred to Al Qaeda in Iraq. Such a setback could fatally undermine political support for the Bush surge and fast-forward a Washington clock that is already winding down on Iraq.
"I'm a believer that the war stops when Republicans go to the president and say, 'Stop the war,' " said John Isaacs, executive director and president of the anti-war Council for a Livable World. Isaacs and others point to such historical precedents as Democrats urging President Johnson to begin a pullback from Vietnam after the Vietcong's 1968 Tet offensive, and key Republicans urging President Nixon to resign to avoid impeachment over Watergate.
On the other hand, if the surge were widely perceived as having worked, possibly boosting a strong war supporter such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., into the Oval Office, then significant time could be added to that clock and to the deployment of significant numbers of U.S. troops in Iraq.
Planning Window Is Closing
Whenever the Washington clock finally winds down, the U.S. military will almost certainly turn to the crack strategists at the Army's School for Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. The fabled "Jedi Knights" of SAMS were instrumental in designing both the Desert Storm campaign to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991 and the Operation Iraqi Freedom invasion to topple Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime in a matter of weeks in 2003. In terms of complexity and risk, the campaign to pull U.S. forces out of Iraq may well upstage both.
"This will be a much harder exercise than the actual invasion," said retired Col. Richard Sinnreich, a noted SAMS graduate who served on both the Joint Staff and the National Security Council. "During an invasion, the curve representing your capabilities and relative strength goes steadily up, and the situation becomes safer and safer as the operation progresses. As you pull forces out, it reverses, and your strength curve goes down, and the situation becomes steadily more dangerous. It's most dangerous for the very last squad that leaves the country. That's why you saw helicopters on the rooftops of the Saigon embassy in 1975."
The military could take a host of steps to help mitigate the risks of a U.S. troop drawdown, including staging a carefully phased and deliberate withdrawal; continuing U.S. support, and accelerated training and equipping, for the Iraqi forces that must fill the security vacuum; and keeping a residual, albeit smaller, U.S. military presence inside Iraq or around its periphery.
But all of those options require the careful planning and hard decision-making that Sinnreich fears are being stymied by the deadlock in Washington.
"The downside of this political theater in Washington, and the disingenuous refusal to admit that we've lost the political will to keep American troops heavily engaged in Iraq indefinitely," he said, "is that it keeps military planners from developing a timetable and a deliberate plan for withdrawal."
It's almost impossible for the military to seriously plan for a contingency -- withdrawal -- that the commander-in-chief won't even discuss, Sinnreich noted. "The probability that it would leak to the press is too high, and no one in uniform wants to take that chance," he said. "Yet only with deliberate planning will we be able to take some of the sting out of what will surely be seen as a U.S. retreat. My point is, there are defeats -- and then there are defeats."
Knowledgeable Pentagon sources say that some planning for a possible drawdown in Iraq is in the "conceptual" stage, but they concede that the vast majority of the military's energy and effort is focused on implementing the troop surge and Petraeus's counterinsurgency campaign in Baghdad.
If the campaign is successful, it will certainly set the conditions for a more orderly withdrawal. Yet some experts recall a similar lack of serious advance planning for "Phase 4" stability operations in Iraq, even as the 2003 invasion loomed.
That lack of careful planning and preparation for what came after Saddam's ouster led to a series of strategic and tactical blunders that bedeviled the U.S. operation in Iraq almost from the moment the dictator's statue fell in Baghdad.
"God, I hope they're already doing the planning for a withdrawal, because only after working through the various scenarios and all of the possible branches and sequels can the military planners explain to their civilian masters what's needed to do this in an orderly way," said retired Maj. Gen. William Nash, who led NATO forces into Bosnia in the mid-1990s. "It's like I once told a superior who said not to worry about building refugee camps for the aftermath of Desert Storm: 'We can do this organized, or we can do it disorganized. Which way do you want it, sir?' The same goes for exiting Iraq. 'Which way do you want it, Mr. President?' "
Whoever is commander-in-chief on the day the Washington clock expires on Iraq is going to face agonizing decisions that are well above the pay grade of anyone in uniform. A withdrawal of major combat forces would arguably mean a pullout from urban areas such as Baghdad and Anbar province, with units probably consolidating at first in a few large operating bases in isolated regions, for better force protection.
Civilian reconstruction teams and thousands of civilian contractors may have to be withdrawn from the field, and evacuation plans would have to be put in place for embassy personnel -- and for the thousands of Iraqis who have closely aided U.S. forces and may not want to gamble on staying behind when the Americans leave.
Because the Iraqi government will have to fill the resulting security vacuum, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group and even a number of Democratic proposals have called for a continued U.S. mission of supporting and training Iraqi security forces. Military experts widely acknowledge that even under the best of circumstances, the Iraqi forces will require U.S. logistical, command-and-control, and airpower support for years to come.
American training and mentoring teams now embedded with Iraqi units would be extremely vulnerable in the event of a major pullout of U.S. combat forces, and retaining this mission almost certainly will require keeping a significant rapid-reaction force behind to bail them out in the event of trouble.
"Because we've never really put our national will and sufficient resources behind the mission of training and equipping Iraqi forces, we're going to have to leave a sizable U.S. military component behind to provide over-watch of those forces in what could be a very dangerous environment," said retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who headed the effort to stand up the Iraqi army. "That means leaving a large-scale, rapid-reaction, and possible evacuation force somewhere nearby. If you don't plan that very carefully, you could end up with an operation that looks like Dunkirk."
Most withdrawal proposals also call for a residual U.S. capacity to strike at Al Qaeda and its affiliated terrorists in Iraq and to deny them an uncontested sanctuary. The Special Operations and intelligence units involved in the terrorist hunt would likewise require backup from a rapid-reaction force as well as significant logistical support. If U.S. forces had to execute that mission from outside the country, many experts believe that they would be no more effective in Iraq than they've been in hunting down Qaeda and Taliban operatives along the isolated border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The ineluctable logic of the military's strength curve applies: The more forces you withdraw and the farther away they are from the point of any required action, the more risk you assume in terms of their effectiveness and vulnerability. Any proposal to pull nearly all American forces out of Iraq in the next 12 to 18 months will run up against that reality.
"I think the Baker-Hamilton proposal that we yank combat forces from Iraq but retain the missions of training Iraqi forces and hunting for terrorists was always unrealistic," said Kenneth Pollack, a Brookings Institution senior fellow and former Middle East analyst for the CIA.
Given the likely size of the forward operating bases, rapid-reaction forces, and logistical footprint required to adequately conduct those missions, Pollack estimates that the United States would still need many tens of thousands of troops in Iraq. "Because I think things are going to get ugly very fast as the bad actors see a major reduction in U.S. forces, I also fear that the rapid-reaction forces we leave behind in Iraq will begin to look like a fire brigade at an arsonists' convention."
In a January 2007 report, "Things Fall Apart: Containing the Spillover From an Iraq Civil War," Pollack and co-author Daniel Byman studied 11 civil wars, from Lebanon in the 1980s and Afghanistan and the Balkans in the 1990s, to Somalia and the Congo today. In nearly every case, they found that civil wars and collapsed states attracted the military intervention of neighbors who saw their interests threatened. Although all-out civil war in Iraq is not preordained, if it were to follow in the wake of a U.S. withdrawal, a similarly negative gravitational pull would likely arise.
"If U.S. forces withdraw, there's a good chance the Iraqi conflict is going to escalate, and that will almost certainly draw in neighbors who feel compelled, for opportunistic or defensive reasons, to get involved," said Byman, a former CIA analyst who directs the security studies program at Georgetown University.
A redeployment scheme that seeks to contain that "spillover" effect, he said, would at a minimum leave U.S. forces on Iraq's borders, certainly in Kuwait, maybe in Jordan, and possibly even in Iraq's relatively peaceful Kurdish north to stave off a move toward independence by the Kurds that would likely incite conflict with Turkey.
Such a withdrawal to the north and south of Baghdad, military experts say, would have the added advantage of giving U.S. forces someplace nearby to redeploy to.
"The United States should also posture itself to deal with a major refugee crisis," Byman said. "The numbers could easily double the 2 million people who have already been displaced by the conflict."
How many resources and U.S. forces should be detailed to contain a possible refugee crisis is one more difficult decision that awaits the commander-in-chief when time runs out on Washington's political clock.
"If we pull our forces out of Iraq, a major refugee crisis is not just a possibility, it's a probability," retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner told National Journal. Garner headed the effort to aid more than 1 million mostly Kurdish refugees after the 1991 Persian Gulf War and was the first U.S. overseer in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. "The midgrade civil war we've already got in Iraq will most likely turn into a full-scale civil war," he said.
Following the U.S. withdrawal from Somalia, the country quickly descended into chaos and a civil war that drew in its own neighbors. Michele Flournoy, who wrote a "lessons learned" report in the aftermath of the Somalia mission as the then-deputy assistant secretary of Defense for strategy, looks to that example today.
"As we contemplate withdrawing from Iraq, we'd better think through what happens if there is wholesale slaughter and genocide, with Shiite militias going into Sunni areas and killing every man, woman, and child," said Flournoy, who is president of the Center for a New American Security, a nonpartisan think tank.
If the commander-in-chief at that time believes that the United States has a moral obligation to intervene in the face of such slaughter, she said, then that, too, will shape the decision on how many forces to leave inside the country and in the region.
"Everyone had better understand that this period of withdrawal from Iraq will be a time of very high risk, with difficult choices and operational challenges, and no good options," Flournoy said. "I fear our most challenging days in Iraq are still ahead of us."
Such are the risks of wars of choice that fracture national unity and are fought on diverging timelines. Whenever the political clock finally strikes midnight in Washington, it will set into motion a U.S. withdrawal whose momentum will be difficult, at best, to reverse. On the ground in Iraq, another blood-red day will be dawning, illuminating a volatile landscape that no one can foresee, but which all the world will view as the legacy of America's intervention.