When President Bush said Tuesday it would be up to “future presidents” to decide whether there will “come a day when there are no more American forces in Iraq,” the clamor was deafening.
“Bush: No Iraq exit in his term,” said a front-page headline in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“Bush commits until 2009,” said Page One of the Washington Times.
“Bush sees U.S. in Iraq past ‘08,” said the lead story of the Baltimore Sun.
Similar headlines were scrolled across the screen bottoms of TV news channels in urgent repetition. And the topic became fodder for pundits, talk-show hosts and bloggers on radio, television and the Internet across the country and beyond.
Judging from the noise, one might have thought that the notion of U.S. troops being stationed on foreign soil long after a war was over was some kind of a first.
World War II ended nearly 61 years ago. Yet, at last glance, more than 100,000 U.S. troops are still stationed in Germany and Japan. Smaller groups are arrayed throughout Europe at NATO or U.S. bases in Italy, Britain, Spain, Belgium, Greece, the Netherlands and Portugal.
The Korean truce was signed in 1953. But South Korea is still host to between 30,000 and 40,000 U.S. troops.
Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was halted in 1991. Nearly 40,000 U.S. troops are still there.
And seven years after a peace accord was reached in Kosovo, some 1,500 U.S. troops are still there as peacekeepers.
Like it or not, the fact is that nearly 400,000 U.S. servicemen and women are deployed in foreign countries. About 133,000 are now in Iraq.
The sum does not include the naval fleets of sailors and Marines that cruise international waters across the globe.
Bush’s Tuesday remarks appears to have been misinterpreted as a signal from the president that the war in Iraq has no end in sight.
Look at the transcript from the news conference to see precisely what was asked and responded:
Question: “Will there come a day – and I’m not asking you when, not asking for a timetable – will there come a day when there will be no more American forces in Iraq?”
The president: “That, of course, is an objective, and that will be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq.”
Question: “So it won’t happen on your watch?”
The president: “You mean a complete withdrawal? That’s a timetable. I can only tell you that I will make decisions on force levels based upon what the commanders on the ground say.”
Note that the questioner asked if there would come a day when “no more” U.S. troops would be in Iraq. That is what Bush was responding to. He hedged.
Some news accounts suggested the president said there would be no major withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq during his watch. He did not. He said decisions on troops levels would be made by “commanders on the ground.” Major withdrawals could occur by 2008. We don’t know.
White House and Pentagon officials have said repeatedly that as Iraqi troops are better able to handle their nation’s security, more American troops can leave. A reduction from 138,000 to 130,000 is under way.
What Bush has avoided is setting a timetable for withdrawals, no matter how hard critics of the war and news reporters push.
What can be correctly concluded from Bush’s words is that he expects a U.S. presence in the country, large or small, after he leaves office in 2009.
As seen from the above statistics, U.S. troops often remain in foreign nations long after the war is over. Should we expect different in Iraq?
The only recent war in which U.S. troops withdrew completely was Vietnam. We lost that one.