So much for the “GOP has the momentum” theory. He started hinting about this last fall and has been picking up steam ever since, culminating with his call for a new AUMF last month. Now he’s gone the eighth of the whole nine yards, recommending the symbolic withdrawal of a small amount of U.S. troops to show the Iraqis we mean business just three weeks before Petraeus is due to speak. I wonder why. He’s up for re-election next year but it wouldn’t have cost him anything to wait until next month to call for withdrawal; if anything, pulling the plug before he’s heard Petraeus out is going to piss off some of his base. Maybe he thinks the pressure on him to vote with the GOP after the report is delivered will be so great that the only way to resist it is to commit to the anti-war side now. That’s weak, but I’ve got no other theories.

The occasion for this is the new NIE, which predicts continuing modest security gains over the next 12 months coupled with a further weakening — or outright disintegration? — of the Iraqi government as the Shiite coalition pulls apart. Bush and the Iraqi parliament seem unwilling to replace Maliki for fear that a new PM would take too long to warm up to the job to accomplish anything before the U.S. is out, but as it is the policy seems premised on the absurd hope either that the country will deteriorate to the point where Maliki has no choice but to renounce his sectarianism and embrace the Sunnis to save it or the surge will cripple the jihadis and militias so entirely that the politicians on both sides will reconcile simply because they no longer have guns backing them up. Anyone here see either scenario in the offing? Note this part of the NIE in particular:

The IC assesses that the emergence of “bottom-up” security initiatives, principally among Sunni Arabs and focused on combating AQI, represent the best prospect for improved security over the next six to 12 months, but we judge these initiatives will only translate into widespread political accommodation and enduring stability if the Iraqi Government accepts and supports them. A multi-stage process involving the Iraqi Government providing support and legitimacy for such initiatives could foster over the longer term political reconciliation between the participating Sunni Arabs and the national government. We also assess that under some conditions “bottom-up initiatives” could pose risks to the Iraqi Government…

Such initiatives, if not fully exploited by the Iraqi Government, could over time also shift greater power to the regions, undermine efforts to impose central authority, and reinvigorate armed opposition to the Baghdad government.

In other words, building up the Sunnis only makes it harder for the Shiites later in a civil war. The fact that Maliki is unwilling to do so shows you which way he’s betting on that.

Even so, the NIE advises staying the course:

We assess that changing the mission of Coalition forces from a primarily counterinsurgency and stabilization role to a primary combat support role for Iraqi forces and counterterrorist operations to prevent AQI from establishing a safehaven would erode security gains achieved thus far…

Recent security improvements in Iraq, including success against AQI, have depended significantly on the close synchronization of conventional counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations. A change of mission that interrupts that synchronization would place security improvements at risk.

That means no Baker-Hamilton, which leaves us with a choice of pulling out or maintaining roughly the same number of troops going forward. Maliki’s betting wisely, I think.