Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard

Is the administration serious about withdrawing troops from Iraq?

ASK THIS | August 03, 2005

The White House has consistently rejected calls for a timetable to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. Yet the commander of American forces there said recently that "some fairly substantial reductions" are possible in the spring and summer of 2006. How credible are such statements? Is this talk just a gambit related to the 2006 elections? And should the matter of troop withdrawals solely be determined by debate within the administration?

By Norman Solomon



Q.  Gen. George Casey asserted in late July that "substantial reductions" in troop levels may occur next spring and summer. How can that statement be squared with the assessments of countless journalists and other observers in Iraq that the insurgency has not lost strength this year and, according to many accounts, has actually gained momentum?


Q. The Wall Street Journal reported on July 28 that "talk of a withdrawal can help Mr. Bush convince skeptical lawmakers and citizens that the matters in Iraq are moving in the right direction, despite recent waves of violence." Doesn't such withdrawal talk dovetail neatly with assuaging the 2006 election concerns of congressional Republicans -- without in any way committing the administration to following through with significant withdrawal of U.S. troops?


Q. Why does President Bush continue to reject any role for Congress in weighing options for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq? Is the White House taking the position that the size and extent of U.S. military involvement in Iraq during the next few years should be left entirely to the president and his advisors, with no meaningful role for Congress or the American public?


The current buzz about possibilities for withdrawal from Iraq is not entirely without precedent. We should recall that some appreciable publicity along similar lines came last fall from none other than syndicated columnist Robert Novak.


"Inside the Bush administration policymaking apparatus, there is strong feeling that U.S. troops must leave Iraq next year," Novak wrote in a column that appeared on Sept. 20, 2004. "This determination is not predicated on success in implanting Iraqi democracy and internal stability. Rather, the officials are saying: Ready or not, here we go." And Novak added: "The military will tell the election winner there are insufficient U.S. forces in Iraq to wage effective war. That leaves three realistic options: Increase overall U.S. military strength to reinforce Iraq, stay with the present strength to continue the war, or get out. Well-placed sources in the administration are confident Bush's decision will be to get out. They believe that is the recommendation of his national security team and would be the recommendation of second-term officials."


That assessment from "well-placed sources in the administration," reported by Novak's column at the start of the fall campaign, received some media pickup at the time. Novak even came back with an Oct. 7 piece that asserted: "Nobody from the administration has officially rejected my column."


It may be the job of White House political strategists and their media operatives to drop tantalizing hints that the likelihood of U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq is much greater and more imminent than previously believed. A dual discourse -- continuing the war effort full-throttle while suggesting that a pullout may not be so far away after all -- offers up a wishful Rorschach blob to commentators and voters. But shouldn't journalists do more than provide he-said she-said stenography for the big players?


President Bush told reporters at the White House on June 24: "There are not going to be any timetables. ... A democratic Iraq is in the interests of the United States and it's in the interests of laying the foundation for peace. And if that's the mission, then why would you say to the enemy: 'Here's a timetable. Just go ahead and wait us out.' It doesn't make any sense to have a timetable."


During the next 15 months, political benefits will beckon for Bush administration officials to say things that seem to foreshadow a winding-down of the U.S. troop presence in Iraq. Journalists ought to contrast and compare the official statements being made in Washington -- and scrutinize how they elide the facts on the ground in Iraq. Otherwise, a lot of the journalistic output between now and November 2006 will turn out to be no more independent or prescient than what Novak wrote at the start of autumn 2004.

War Made Easy
All about Norman Solomon's new book.

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.