President Bush began Memorial Day weekend last Thursday with a speech in Fort Bragg, N.C., to five brigades of the 82nd Airborne Division-the first time in two years all five were assembled for review following extended deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. The president saluted a flyover of helicopters, watched as parachuters landed on the field, hugged family members whose husbands and sons have died in the war, and gave the crowd the traditional "Hooah!"
The event marked the beginning for the president of a week focused on the troops and on his war policy. On Sunday at the White House lawn he will speak to a group of veterans and POW/MIA activists. On Monday he and the first lady will participate in the traditional wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery, and on Wednesday he will deliver the commencement address at the Air Force Academy in Colorado.
If the Fort Bragg speech is an early indicator, then beneath the pomp-and-circumstance of this holiday when Americans honor their war heroes is a message from a commander-in-chief who may be readying himself to end the war.
The president outlined four conditions for "success in Iraq":
• a country that can protect its own people
• one that supports itself economically
•a democracy that governs itself effectively and responds to the will of its people
•and a country that is an ally of the United States in the war on terror.
The president acknowledged there remains "tough fighting ahead" and cautioned against "withdrawal from Iraq before we have achieved success." But recent events on the ground suggest-remarkably-that the four-point test can arguably be met:
• Iraqi forces showed marked progress in pushing back against militants in Basra last month and are now leading operations in Mosul to drive al-Qaeda from one of its few remaining strongholds.
• Iraq is at its highest oil production and export levels since the war began five years ago. Coupled with the highest oil revenues in history, the Iraqi government has "an enormous revenue windfall," according to Stuart Bowen, special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction. Oil revenues estimated at $35 billion by Iraqi officials last fall are more likely to be closer to $60 billion. "The Iraqis have a budget surplus," said U.S. Comptroller General David Walker. "We have a huge budget deficit. ... One of the questions is who should be paying."
• U.S. lawmakers have dithered for years over social security and Medicare overhauls, immigration reform, and bloated spending bills. Just this year Iraq's parliament has passed a pension law, de-Baathification reform bill plus and amnesty law, and new budget. Corruption and infighting remain rife, and they are no small considerations. But benchmarks are in place.
One important upcoming hurdle is for officials to hold this year a status referendum on Kirkuk and other disputed territories in the north with historic ties to the Kurdish region but where Arabs were forcibly relocated under Saddam Hussein. Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution mandated a 2007 deadline on a referendum but it has been twice extended as the region becomes a focal point of ethnic and political disputes: Sunnis and Turkomen, with backing from Turkey, want the area to remain under direct central government control from Baghdad. Kurds and others want it restored to northern regional governance. A vote may be divisive and potentially even explosive-but necessary this year if constitutional government in Iraq is to be taken seriously.
• One of the biggest U.S. mistakes in Iraq was imposing a U.S. bureaucracy on its elected leaders from the top down. One of the surprising turnabouts of the last six months is the formation of local councils, in some cases by former Iraqi insurgents, who figured out they don't like terrorists any better than Americans do. An Iraq-U.S. agreement hammered out last year means continued U.S. bases and a military presence-and guarantees a post-war security presence. Already three brigades have come home without being replaced in Iraq, and Gen. David Petraeus, commander of forces, has asked that troop levels return to their pre-surge level by the end of July.
While flags unfurl this Memorial Day weekend, U.S. combat casualties in Iraq stand at 16-on track to make May perhaps the lowest casualty months in years, perhaps of the entire war. It's a good time to remember the lives lost, and saved, and to contemplate the possibility of bringing this war chapter to a close.