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As the pendulum swings

With casualties in Iraq at an eight-month low, why aren't the Democrats cheering?

As the pendulum swings

Just off Pennsylvania Avenue, small groups of workers stand in line for lunch at a 24-hour Burger King and sip triple lattes at a nearby coffee shop. After work, they might catch a movie at a local theater or check out the latest iPod accessories at a nearby electronics store.

But these aren't White House workers, and this Pennsylvania Avenue isn't in Washington, D.C. Instead, these workers are U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians, and this arid road runs through the largest U.S. military base in Iraq.

Balad Air Base-also known to U.S. forces as Camp Anaconda-sits 50 miles north of Baghdad in one of the most hostile regions in Iraq. Some 20,000 U.S. troops live and work on the base, which includes a logistics center and a massive airstrip of more than 11,000 feet-or just over two miles long. Air Force officials say it's the second busiest runway in the world, trailing only Heathrow Airport in London.

Congress has appropriated hundreds of millions of dollars to construct Balad and at least three other mega-bases that serve as major air and logistics hubs in Iraq. (The United States has about 75 smaller, forward-operating bases around the country, most with conditions far more rustic than those at Balad.) This year alone, Congress approved some $1.7 billion for military construction in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But late last month, the House passed another piece of base-related legislation: a bill that bars the establishment of permanent military bases in Iraq.

Even as major construction continued on U.S. bases in the region, Democrats said Iraqis need a clear sign that America doesn't plan to stay in the country long-term.

Most House Republicans went along with the bill, saying it only reiterates President Bush's stated policy: Military spending measures in 2006 and 2007 included clauses that prohibited permanent military installations in Iraq. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) voted for the recent bill but called it a political stunt by Democrats: "'No permanent bases' is already the policy of the United States."

If that is the policy of the United States, it isn't clear: Administration officials say there are no plans for permanent bases in Iraq, but also suggest that Americans may need to stay in the country long-term. (Bush has maintained the United States needs a long-term presence in the region, but he hasn't specified where.)

Meanwhile, military officials are offering a more blunt assessment: Navy Adm. Michael Mullen, Bush's nominee for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers at his confirmation hearing last month that the United States will be in Iraq for "years not months." Bush officials have not offered a timeline.

That ambiguity underscores the complexity of making long-term plans in a volatile country. But it also underscores another problem undermining the Bush administration: a lack of clarity in communicating the goals and gains of a war that appears muddled to many Americans.

In a prime-time news conference nearly a year after the war began, President Bush told Americans: "As a proud and independent people, Iraqis do not support an indefinite occupation, and neither does America." Early last year, then-U.S. ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad was more direct, telling Congress: "We have no goal of establishing permanent bases." Khalilzad repeated that assurance on Iraqi television.

But early this summer, administration officials for the first time publicly suggested the possibility of a long-term presence in Iraq. Bush spokesman Tony Snow compared the mission in Iraq to the mission in South Korea, where the United States has maintained a military base since the end of the Korean War more than 50 years ago. Snow said once U.S. troops no longer patrol the streets of Iraq, the American mission could likewise evolve into an "over-the-horizon support role."

A day later, Defense Secretary Robert Gates went further when discussing Iraq and said the United States handled Korea better than Vietnam, "where we just left lock, stock, and barrel." He added: "The idea is more of a model of a mutually agreed arrangement whereby we have a long and enduring presence."

War critics decry the Korea analogy, saying the conflicts are too different to compare. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) recently argued that Korea was "vital to our security interests during the Cold War." He added: "But Iraq is not Korea. It is now beyond question that our national security is being harmed-not helped-by our continuing vast footprint in Iraq."

According to Thomas Donnelly, that assertion isn't beyond question. Donnelly, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told WORLD that Iraqi security is vital to American security: "We're building an ally in the longer war."

Donnelly acknowledges that a stable alliance depends on Iraq establishing a stable government, but he says that won't happen without help from the United States: "Security is inseparable from all these questions of internal politics." To that end, Donnelly says establishing long-term military bases in Iraq is prudent, not provocative: "Our long-term success in Iraq depends on a long-term American presence."

But many Americans don't agree, and Donnelly says the Bush administration must convince more Americans that the war is a good idea. In that effort, the administration faces an uphill battle from a Democratic Congress bent on saturating Americans with an anti-war message.

After the passage late last month of the base-related bill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) put it stridently: "The Democratic Congress will go on record-every day if necessary-to register a judgment to the course of action that the president is taking in Iraq." Democrats this month plan a barrage of bills ahead of the August recess aimed at pressuring more Republicans to oppose the war.

But administration officials missed an opportunity to respond with a communications barrage of their own, despite mounting reports of progress in Iraq. Those reports include several high-profile captures by the U.S. military in recent months, including Khaled al-Mashhadani, the top Iraqi member of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Officials say al-Mashhadani was also an intermediary between top al-Qaeda officials, including Osama bin Laden.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military reported steady progress with bolstered security efforts: The American death toll in Iraq in July was 73, the lowest in eight months.

But one of the most striking reports of progress in Iraq recently came from two staunch opponents of the war. Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack, both of the Brookings Institution, wrote about their recent trip to Iraq in a July 30 New York Times editorial. The pair offered a long list of significant gains in Iraq: Civilian deaths are down, volatile neighborhoods are safer, relations between U.S. soldiers and local populations are better, and the Iraqi military's performance is vastly improving.

O'Hanlon and Pollack summarized their findings by saying: "Here is the most important thing Americans need to understand: We are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms."

Donnelly says those are important messages for war-weary Americans to hear: "It's not something that can be done overnight, but that doesn't mean its not worth doing."

For now, war supporters and opponents alike are waiting for September: That's when Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, is scheduled to deliver a highly anticipated report to Congress on the progress of the war and the success of the president's troop surge.

Donnelly predicts Petraeus will offer a "measured but upbeat assessment" of the war. "I think the pendulum is swinging," he says. "I just don't know how far it will swing."

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.