Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senator Jim Webb today discussed Democrats’ efforts to change course in Iraq and to ensure that our military and National Guard units deploying for combat operations are supported properly. Following the three deadliest months of the war, Democrats are forcing President Bush and Iraqis to finally accept some measure of accountability for this war through the Defense Authorization bill this week. Starting off the debate, Webb will introduce an amendment to the bill that requires active-duty troops to have at least the same amount of time at home as the length of their previous tour overseas.
This is a good piece of legislation, and I certainly hope it passes. However, for my money, the most interesting part of the press conference was a response Senator Reid gave to the final question of the presser. According to a video and rush transcript available at Crooks and Liars, Senator Reid said the following:
Feingold/Reid called for American troops to remain in Iraq to do counter-terrorsim…to protect our assets in Iraq. To train the Iraqis. There are estimates that that would still leave tens of thousands of troops to stay in Iraq. No one is calling for precipitous withdrawal in Iraq. No one
Wow. This is a remarkable admission, and one that virtually every Democratic politician has avoided like the plague. Very few Democrats have been willing to put an estimate on the amount of American troops that would remain in Iraq, even when it comes to legislation the Democrat in question is sponsoring. This is fairly justifiable, since estimates of any accuracy are very difficult to come by. Also, apart from the difficulty of making these estimations, there are obvious political concerns. After all, Democrats don’t exactly want to go around boasting that they will keep “tens of thousands” of troops in Iraq after claiming for nearly a year that we will end the war once in power.
Whether intentional or not, and whether accurate or not, I am glad that Senator Reid finally broached the subject and put a (very) rough estimate on the number of troops his sponsored legislation would leave in Iraq. This is a discussion we need to have. Importantly, once again underscoring the difficulty of these estimations, it should also be noted that Senator Feingold’s office disputes Reid’s “tens of thousands” number. Here is a statement I received over email from Senator Feingold’s office earlier today:
Senator Feingold believes that while decisions about exact troop levels should be made with input from military commanders, Feingold-Reid would redeploy the vast majority of U.S. troops in Iraq. Senator Feingold does not envision that the exceptions outlined in Feingold-Reid will require tens of thousands of troops.
Reid’s comment was off the cuff, and as such this more thought out statement from Feingold’s office is probably the more accurate one. Or, at least I hope it is more accurate. Even in this statement, it isn’t hard to see that no one is able to provide a reasonably precise estimate for how many American troops would stay in Iraq under most of the myriad Democratic redeployment plans. Democrats hope that “tens of thousands” won’t be necessary. Democrats don’t “envision” that tens of thousands will be necessary. Unfortunately, no one knows for sure.
What we do know for sure is that virtually every Democratic redeployment plan, whether coming from Congress or a 2008 Presidential candidate (or both), includes provisions for a reduced American troop presence in Iraq, as well as specific missions that troop presence would carry out. These missions range anywhere from conducting counter-terrorism operations, protecting humanitarian workers, maintaining a presence in the Kurdish north, to preventing genocide. Leaving arguments over the merits of these missions aside for the moment, what we don’t know is how many troops will be required to carry out these missions. The current best estimate for the most hawkish redeployment plan, Reid-Levin, is 40-60K. Of course, in what is still basically a game of guesswork, even that number comes with a few qualifiers. From what I have learned, the 40-60K figure actually comes from a New York Times estimate on how many troops would be required for the Iraq Study Group Report plan (counter-qualifier: even though that estimate comes form the New York Times, it is not seriously disputed in policy circles). Since Reid-Levin is basically turning the ISG into legislation, the generally accepted, though still admittedly guess-work, NYT estimate applies to that legislation as well. All other Democratic proposals would probably move downward from there, and thus require less than 40K. How much lower than 40K seems to be, quite literally, anyone’s guess at this point.
Our lack of information in this area is starting to frustrate me a great deal. I hope it frustrates you, as well. For one thing, it is very difficult to have a useful debate over Iraq during the Democratic primary season without comparing not only the specific missions the different candidates would have American troops carry out in Iraq if elected, but also reasonable estimate for how many troops those missions would require. Information like this is crucial both to understanding the differences between Democratic candidates on Iraq, and also to an informed electorate that understands our different options when it comes to Iraq. If ending the war means keeping 40,000 American troops in Iraq to one candidate (30% of pre-escalation levels), but it means only keeping 1,000-2,000 American troops in Iraq to another, well, then that’s something we ought to know. And it doesn’t help that the established media are not pushing Democrats on this point, at least yet.
Anyway, one of my first, long-term campaigns on Open Left will be to try and find the necessary information to clear up this matter. I’ll be posting about this again later in the week as I gather more information. I think it is a campaign that more people in the blogosphere should take up, because this is crucial not only to the way we understand the 2008 Democratic field, but also to what happens after Democrats win the White House in 2008. Almost every day, it seems more and more likely that we will in fact win the White House next year, and so we better start understanding what a Democratic administration would do when it comes to the defining issue of this decade: Iraq. This is one issue where we can’t afford to be surprised.