"They're nervous. They see the polls," Senator John McCain, who opposed the resolution, told me last week. As always, McCain has been a model of stubborn independence and utter rectitude in matters of war and peace. He has led a full-throated effort to get the Bush Administration to abjure the use of torture. But he has also made the strongest and most detailed strategic argumentmost notably in a speech at the American Enterprise Institutefor a renewed effort to succeed in Iraq. He believes the war against Islamist radicalism should be the highest national priority. He is one of the few remaining American politicians who want to send more troops to the war zone. "I don't think I could get a majority for that," McCain said. In fact, the Senator conceded that even if his plan were approved, he wasn't sure where the additional troops would come from. "It's very tough," he said. "We needed to start expanding the size of the Army three years ago."
So the Senate resolution reflected not only poll-driven politics but also military reality. There is strong sentiment within the Pentagon to reduce the number of troops soonno matter the continuing vehemence of the President's rhetoricin order to avoid forcing exhausted troops into longer tours of duty. The current level of 160,000 troops could be cut in half by next summer. "The future of our military is at risk," Murtha said in his emotional press conference, accurately reflecting the views of the uniformed brass. "Our military and their families are stretched thin. Many say that the Army is broken. Some of our troops are on their third deployment."
Murtha, a Marine combat veteran of Vietnam, was speaking from the heart. He makes weekly visits to Washington-area military hospitals. He has spent a lifetime devoted to what he perceives to be the best interests of the U.S. military. But unlike McCain, Murtha does not seem to believe that the war against Islamist terrorism is the highest national priority. He said Iraq threatened to drain resources from "procurement programs that ensure our military dominance." On the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, he wondered if China were the real threat "down the road" and expressed dismay that "we only bought four or five ships this year."
In an odd way, Murtha sounded an awful lot like Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who, according to high-ranking military officials, has seemed slightly annoyed that the war in Iraq has diverted resources from his real goal of "transforming" the military into a high-tech outfit that can scare the bejeezus out of China. Rumsfeld's Pentagon has refused to undertake the violent reordering of prioritiesmore special forces, more intelligence, zero boatsneeded to fight a scruffy, labor-intensive struggle against an enemy that thrives in shadows in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Rumsfeld's relative indifference to the shooting war since the fall of Baghdad, combined with the President's garishly bellicose rhetoric and refusal to ask wartime sacrifices of the public, has led to a national embarrassmenta cloddish superpower that talks big and acts smalland is leading to an inevitable, irresponsible sidle out of Iraq.
Murtha did not talk about the consequences of a precipitous withdrawal. No one really has. The most passionate discussions in Washington last week were about the pastwhether the President intentionally misled the country into warnot the future. They are a waste of time. Two questions need to be addressed: Will an American withdrawal from Iraq create more or less stability in the Middle East? Will a withdrawal increase or decrease the threat of another terrorist attack at home? It does not matter whether you believe the war was right or wrong. If the answers to those questions are less stability and an empowered al-Qaeda, we'd better think twice about slipping down this dangerous path.