"Most Democrats share the view that we should pressure the White House to commence the phased redeployment of U.S. troops from Iraq in four to six months, to begin that phased redeployment, and thereby to make it clear to the Iraqis that our presence is not open-ended and that they must take and make the necessary political compromises to preserve Iraq as a nation. We cannot save the Iraqis from themselves," said Sen. Carl Levin, D- Mich., on Monday at a Capitol Hill press conference.
With those words, the debate over how and whether to conduct a "phased withdrawal" from Iraq has officially begun.
"We're getting deeper and deeper into a hole that we should stop digging, and that we should look for alternatives in order to promote the chances of success in Iraq," Levin said.
Levin has long advocated telling the Iraqi government that U.S. troops would be withdrawn unless it made the political compromises needed to bring Iraq together.
"They and they alone, are going to decide whether they're going to have a nation or whether they're going to have an all-out civil war. We have given them the opportunity, at huge cost of blood and treasure, to have a nation should they choose it. But it is up to them, not us, not our brave and not our valiant troops. It's up to the Iraqi leadership. Do they want a civil war or do they want a nation?" Levin said.
The decision to conduct a phased withdrawal - that is, pulling out thousands of troops at a time, over time -- rests on the answers to a series of simple questions:
Will the withdrawal of a significant number of U.S. troops improve or degrade security in Iraq?
Will Iraq's security forces be able to sustain the fight without daily U.S. backing?
If security would be further degraded in Iraq, will that necessarily threaten the United States?
And even if it does, is that reason enough for U.S. troops to stay? Do the benefits outweigh the continued cost in lives and money?
There are ancillary questions, as well - does the United States have a moral obligation to Iraqis not to pull out its troops if it means security will worsen?
And should the United States, conversely, send in 20,000 additional troops to try to tip the balance in favor of security, as Sen. John McCain suggested at the end of October?
The answers to these questions are anything but simple.
The nightmare scenario in Iraq is leaving it with an unstable government or a government that leaves vast tracts of land ungoverned. Iraq shares long, unsecured borders with six key countries in the Middle East, including Turkey, a NATO ally and it has huge oil reserves. Uncontrolled, it could easily become a new safe harbor for al-Qaida or other terrorist networks, but without the comparative disadvantages of Afghanistan - its terrain, its undeveloped economy, its remoteness.
But that possibility alone is not a reason to stay, a senior military official with significant experience in Iraq told UPI.
"World War II was supposed to stop tyranny in Europe and we ended up with the Iron Curtain. (If Iraq turns into a Taliban-era Afghanistan) we'll have to deal with that one.
He said the outcome of the midterm election suggests the American people may not support the war in significant enough numbers to continue. The challenge will be to withdraw troops in a way that does not degrade security.
"Clearly if the people don't want us there it's time for us to leave, but to leave in an orderly way where we don't create more problems on the way out," the officer said. "But it's got to be integrated with the Iraq government. I think there is a lot to be said for how we do it. That will be the proof -- whether or not we give them a chance to make it. We can't just pull the rug out. But we can't stay there forever either."
It's a forcing function; they (the Iraqis) have got to stand on their own two feet," he said. "But we have to do it in a way doesn't pull them out at the roots."
Another senior official with a long command deployment in Iraq warned that a U.S. troops withdrawal would diminish U.S.influence over Iraq's security forces, which have a spotty human rights record.
"It will remove our restraint on a culture in which detainees were not treated very well in the past (in an "eye for an eye" region)," he told UPI.
The officer endorsed the approach laid out in the Washington Post by Dennis Ross, a diplomat under President Bill Clinton and President George Herbert Walker Bush, the current president's father.
"I'd be more inclined to pursue the Dennis Ross approach after the elections and see if the Iraqi government is serious or not," he said.
The Iraq Study Group, a 10-member commission led by former Secretary of State James Baker and former House Foreign Relations Committee chairman Lee Hamilton, is studying possible future options for U.S. policies on Iraq. CBS News reported in October the group will recommend the withdrawal of five percent of American forces from Iraq every two months.
The Baker-Hamilton commission spent Monday at the White House meeting with top cabinet officials, including outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter Pace. Robert Gates, Bush's nominee to replace Rumsfeld as secretary of defense, has resigned as a member of the ISG.