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Optimists & Pessimists

CBS News reporter Charles Wolfson is a former Tel Aviv bureau chief for CBS News. He now covers the State Department.



The Democrats' stunning victory in midterm elections last week has forced political leaders in Washington and Baghdad to sharpen the focus on their positions regarding the key element of Iraq strategy: determining the basis for withdrawal of American troops.

President Bush remains adamant that he will not "cut and run" and says the U.S. military will be in Iraq until the job is done, that is until Iraqi troops can maintain the security of their own country.

But that didn't stop the president from jettisoning Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld not long after the votes had been counted, making Rumsfeld the highest profile casualty on the political battlefield.

Many Democrats flush with victory and feeling empowered by a mandate from the voters, are renewing the push for an announced timetable of withdrawal. Such a move, they argue, would bring an end to mounting American casualties and would give advance warning to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government that it needs to be ready to assume control of its own country.

Caught in the middle of this debate are America's military commanders. They know better than any politician in Washington that the odds are low that enough Iraqi soldiers can be trained in the next few months to allow U.S. troops to leave the country in capable hands.

They also know better than anyone what pulling out of Iraq too early would mean, a lesson learned painfully a generation ago in Vietnam. As it happens, it is the uniformed military that will pay a price either way. Leave too soon and sectarian violence, already out of control, will rise dramatically; leave later and more American soldiers will pay the price.

On the political side, State Department officials and others in the policy-making arena know how difficult it is for Iraq's newly installed leadership to agree on a strategy for exercising their newly gained power. The Sunnis remain suspicious of recently empowered Shi'a while the Kurds are wary of both.

All factions want to maintain their own private militias while Washington is working to create a national army, answerable to Iraq, not to a sect or a tribe. This has always been an uphill climb, it still is and now time is running out. That is true especially for optimists such as Mr. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who continue to think Iraq's nascent, democratically-elected government will work, given time.

Unfortunately, those committed to upsetting Mr. Bush's democracy apple cart have been able to push the country to the point of collapse. Al Qaeda terrorists, ex-baathists and militias of every stripe seem bent on fomenting enough death and discord to make the U.S. depart Iraq at the earliest possible moment.

It is against this backdrop that everyone in Washington is saying: cue the Baker-Hamilton Commission report. Formally known as the Iraq Study Group, the commission's 10 members are led by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Congressman Lee Hamilton, and they will present their findings before the end of the year. While Mr. Bush is not obligated to adopt them, he will be under great pressure to do so.

Five Republicans and five Democrats are now in the process of reaching what Baker called a "consensus" agreement on a set of recommendations which will be widely seen as a roadmap for America's withdrawal from Iraq. With Baker already publicly saying "there is no silver bullet" solution in Iraq, whether this group of experienced Washington movers and shakers will be able to meet expectations is another question altogether.

No one is likely to get the exact outcome they desire. The analysts who have served to advise the commission are as divided as the country is. Some want to see America stay the course, but many are of the opinion that Iraq is a lost cause and the only question is how we extricate ourselves in an honorable way. A lot of ideas have been reported as likely to be recommended, but the fact is the ISG has not yet reached any conclusions, according to informed sources.

As the Baker commission ponders such ideas as a new diplomatic dialogue with Syria and Iran, or a specific timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, both the Pentagon and State Department are doing their own Iraq policy reviews.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bush and Secretary Rice are meeting with Asian leaders in Hanoi, their attentions momentarily diverted from Iraq just long enough to try to figure out their next moves with North Korea, which recently tested a nuclear weapon. Soon after that, they'll find themselves in Europe for a NATO summit and a steady diet of meetings devoted to working out problems standing in the way of getting the U.N. Security Council to pass a sanctions resolution on Iran because of its nuclear weapons program.

And in the coming weeks, everyone can hope the Baker commission comes up with a plan to which they can say, "Eureka! Why didn't I think of that?"
By Charles Wolfson

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