From his town hall meeting today in Cleveland. McCain, just back from Baghdad, gave him a boost this morning by refusing to join Domenici and company in the lifeboat (“The terrorists are in this war to win it. The question is, are we?”). That gave Bush his opening to push the crowd here on letting the surge play out, notwithstanding the fact that Maliki is evidently going to hit precisely zero of the 18 political benchmarks that were set for him.
There’s some sleight of hand going on towards the end here. Bush frames the goal at the end of the surge as having enough troops to secure Iraq’s border, target Al Qaeda, and train the Iraqis — coincidentally, the very same goals laid out in Baker-Hamilton. Except that it’s not a coincidence at all, of course:
[T]he president has mapped out a best-case scenario for Iraq on Jan. 20, 2009, that would still see considerable numbers of U.S. troops on the ground, but in a different role. If events work out as Bush hopes, aides said, U.S. forces by then will have sharply reduced their mission, pulling out of sectarian combat and focusing instead on fighting al-Qaeda, guarding Iraq’s borders and supporting Iraqi troops. Instead of operating under a U.N. mandate, the United States would negotiate an agreement with the Iraqi government for a smaller, long-term presence.
Such a reduced mandate would resemble the vision advanced in December by the Iraq Study Group, led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.). A Pentagon study last year concluded that even the more limited mission would require about 120,000 U.S. troops, compared with about 160,000 today, according to administration officials. But officials said it could be done with 60,000 to 100,000 troops.
Bush hopes the net result would be a situation stable enough that the next president — even a Democrat with an antiwar platform — would feel confident enough to sustain some form of U.S. mission despite domestic pressure to pull out altogether.
B-H is the best he’s going to do now and he knows it. So does Reid, apparently, because he’s backing off his own explicit endorsement of B-H from five days ago (and implicit endorsement just yesterday) and calling now for the Democrats to “put some teeth in” to their withdrawal proposals above and beyond what B-H calls for. So it’s a three-way debate: “B-H now” for the Republicans, “B-H in September” for Bush, and “B-H Plus” for the Democrats. If they compromise and do what the public wants, Petraeus will get his two months — followed by an almost total withdrawal by April.
I may have some updates coming. Stand by.
Update: Here’s Domenici making very clear that he won’t vote with the Democrats for one of their plans, he’ll only vote for Baker-Hamilton. Which is also convenient, since the Reed-Levin plan is similar to B-H in most respects. Since they’ll probably rework it now to push the deadline for withdrawal up, the question is how much earlier will Domenici and company let it be pushed before they refuse to sign on to it. Click the image to watch.
Update: The first line of attack will be a bill to mandate the intervals between troop deployments to deny Bush the option of increasing manpower by extending tours. Meanwhile, Olympia Snowe says she’s thinking seriously of joining Hagel and Gordon Smith in voting for a timetable for withdrawal. Jon Kyl says he thinks the GOP has enough votes to block any attempts at a timetable or to cut the funding, but then he thought shamnesty was going to pass — both houses — by July 4th.
Update: Hold the phone. Tony Snow said today that the Iraqi government has met some of the benchmarks. Not many, though, it sounds like.
Update: Here’s the ad the DSCC put together to pressure Mitch McConnell, who’s expecting a tough re-election campaign next year. What, no flag-draped coffins?