Mixed signals on bringing troops home

July 29, 2005|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Bogged down in the Vietnam War, President Lyndon B. Johnson in May 1964 got some advice from one of his closest Senate allies, Democratic Sen. Richard B. Russell of Georgia. According to the LBJ White House tapes, Senator Russell told the president he should "get some fellow in there [Saigon] that said he wished to hell we would get out. That would give us a good excuse for getting out."

Mr. Johnson never followed the face-saving advice, nor did he heed the counsel of Republican Sen. George D. Aiken of Vermont, who said the United States should "declare victory and come home." He chose instead a drawn-out war policy of "Vietnamization" that culminated in American withdrawal, not unlike the present approach in Iraq.

Once again the matter of bringing U.S. troops home is the subject of growing pressure, from Democratic and anti-war groups especially, on an American president who has vowed to keep them in Iraq as long as necessary, but not one day longer.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, meeting Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari in Baghdad the other day, said again that the Bush administration would not set a timetable for troop withdrawal. Instead, he pressed Mr. al-Jaafari on meeting an October deadline for a referendum on a new constitution that would allow national elections in December.

At the same time, however, the U.S. troop commander in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., volunteered an optimistic outlook for "some fairly substantial reductions after these elections in the spring and summer" if training of Iraqi security forces "continues to go as it is going." General Casey argued that "the level of attacks they've [the insurgents] been able to generate has not increased substantially" over the previous year.

It's hard to square this rosy scenario with the observation to Congress this month of Marine Gen. Peter Pace, soon to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He said only "a small number of Iraqi security forces are taking on the insurgents and terrorists by themselves," a third are ready to do so with coalition help, and the rest are only "partially capable."

Mr. al-Jaafari, at a news conference with Secretary Rumsfeld, seemed to be supporting an early withdrawal. "The great desire of the Iraqi people is to see the coalition forces be on their way out as they take more responsibility," he said.

But then he added: "The withdrawal should be whenever the Iraqi forces are ready to stand up."

The situation is not totally analogous to what was going on in Vietnam when Mr. Russell gave his advice to President Johnson. Then, LBJ was in a position to install a South Vietnamese politician who could be instructed to ask for an American pullout. Mr. al-Jaafari, by contrast, was not a creature of President Bush, and he shares his precondition of capable Iraqi security forces taking over.

But as the American death toll in Iraq approaches 1,800, anti-war critics are stepping up their argument that the presence of U.S. forces in the country is becoming a more serious catalyst for insurgent violence there.

Leading the charge for a start to withdrawal is Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee last month characterized the U.S. presence in Iraq as "a seemingly intangible quagmire." Pressure for a coalition pullout also is growing in Great Britain in the wake of the London bombings.

General Casey's conditional prospect of some reduction in the 138,000 U.S. troop level and Mr. Rumsfeld's refusal to set a timetable send mixed signals - but hardly the only ones in this war of controversial decision-making.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesday and Fridays.

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