WaPo ran a story today that outlines the insurmountable political obstacles to a fundamental change of course. Yet change, we're told, is on the horizon: Petraeus vowed to begin "redefining the mission" in December, shifting forces from a combat role to a more supervisory one. Nevertheless, the troop levels are expected to stay above 100,000 until at least June 2009.
While one can only expect promises of "redefining the mission" to follow in the proud Bush administration tradition of "redefining success in Iraq" -- or redefining "optimism," that distinctly American, uniquely malleable virtue -- the real changes in the conduct of this war might fly below the radar. Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) has long decried the practice of extending reservists' tours through administrative gimmicks. As a friend and fellow graduate student explained to me before he left for Iraq last Spring, guardsmen were until quite recently allowed to return to civilian life for two full years for every year they spent deployed. Today, that allowance has been reduced to one year. We are now witnessing a further erosion of the distinction between professional soldier and weekend warrior. The guardsman returning from Iraq after a year-long tour is simply transferred to another unit heading back to Iraq, in the process spending a nominal amount of time stateside. The "unit" gets a year off, but he gets to go back to Iraq or Afghanistan for a second consecutive year.
Webb recently led a bipartisan delegation to Iraq, and he appears poised to see his amendment on troop rotation passed into law. This will be a significant victory for all Americans interested in seeing support-the-troops-style sloganeering backed up with compassionate treatment for the uniformed.