WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The outcome of the Iraq war may still be in the balance but U.S. President George W. Bush has already won the war about the war in Washington.
In November 2006 elections, Bush’s Republican Party lost control of both houses of Congress largely due to public anger about Iraq. Democrats pledged to end the war that started in March 2003 and bring the troops home.
But testimony to Congress this week by the top commander on the ground, Army Gen. David Petraeus, indicates there will be about the same high level of U.S. troops in Iraq when Americans elect Bush’s successor this November.
Bush managed to keep control thanks to a change of strategy, the appointment of a media-friendly and politically savvy commander in Petraeus, a reduction of violence in Iraq and the limited tools Congress has at its disposal.
After the 2006 election loss, which Bush himself described as a thumping, the president replaced Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the war’s main architect. Many saw the move as a sign that Bush would change course and draw down in Iraq.
Bush and his new defense secretary, Robert Gates, did change course. But they decided they needed more, not fewer, troops to pull Iraq back from the brink of all-out civil war.
In January 2007, Bush ordered a “surge” of some 30,000 U.S. troops into Iraq, bringing the total to around 160,000. Petraeus, a counter-insurgency expert with a doctorate from Princeton University, took command the following month.
Petraeus soon made clear he saw his job as not just to improve security in Iraq but also to buy time for his efforts in the United States. He talked about speeding up the “Baghdad clock” and slowing down the “Washington clock.”
The general recruited leading Washington military analysts as advisers and encouraged commanders to cultivate good relations with the media. That approach helped produce positive editorials and coverage of U.S. efforts in Iraq.
Even opponents of the war say Petraeus has been successful in winning time, although they are skeptical about progress towards lasting stability among factions in Iraq.
“You’ve succeeded in putting more time on the Washington clock,” Rep. Ike Skelton, chairman of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, told Petraeus on Wednesday.
“But the strategic failure is that the Iraqi politicians don’t seem to have picked up a sense of urgency,” said Skelton, a Democrat from Missouri.
Petraeus says he wants to halt troop drawdowns this summer when the combat forces from the “surge” have left. That should leave about 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, officers have said.
Analysts do not expect the total to drop dramatically in the following few months, making it likely Bush will hand over the White House to his Republican or Democratic successor with the number of troops in Iraq fairly close to the 133,700 who were there at the end of November 2006.
Bush has managed to hold his course despite suffering a spate of defections last summer. Several senior Republican lawmakers called publicly for a change in strategy.
But around the same time, violence began to decline substantially in Iraq, thanks partly to the surge of U.S. forces but also to former Sunni insurgents joining the fight against al Qaeda and a ceasefire by Shi‘ite cleric Moqtada al Sadr’s militia.
The war ceased to become the dominant issue in U.S. politics, particularly as worries about the economy grew.
In a series of votes, Democrats in the House of Representatives have managed to pass timetables for withdrawing U.S. combat forces from Iraq, only to see those efforts fizzle in the Senate, where Democrats have not been able to build a 60-vote majority needed to advance controversial legislation.
“It is clear that we do not have the votes in the United States Congress at this moment in time,” said Sen. John Kerry, who had been the Democrats’ presidential candidate in 2004.
He said any change in policy would likely have to wait until November’s elections when Americans will choose members of all of the House and about a third of the Senate, as well as a new president.
“The American people are going to speak on this in November,” Kerry said.
Editing by John O'Callaghan