SURGE UPDATE….Robert Gates told Congress yesterday that he thinks it may be possible to reduce troop levels in Iraq if the surge is producing results by autumn:

“I think if we see some very positive progress and it looks like things are headed in the right direction, then that’s the point at which I think we can begin to consider reducing some of these forces,” Gates said.

….Gates held firm against suggestions that the troop buildup be extended into 2008, saying a review in September would help determine future steps….At a news conference later in the day, he indicated that the eventual U.S. troop level could be as low as 25,000.

I don’t know how serious Gates is about this. Maybe he’s just blowing smoke. But it’s consistent with the general tone he’s taken ever since President Bush appointed him. He doesn’t seem to be a die-hard supporter of the surge.

This also suggests that Gen. David Petraeus has a real tightrope to walk when he gives his evaluation of the surge in September. On the one hand, he needs to produce at least a mildly upbeat assessment or else he’ll face irresistable pressure from congressional Democrats and reality-based Republicans to start a withdrawal. On the other hand, if his assessment is too upbeat he may end up facing pressure from his boss to do the same thing. He’s going to have to thread that needle pretty carefully if he wants to keep troops at the same level that he has now.

This isn’t to imply that Petraeus is going to provide a purely political evaluation. It’s just to say that we all weigh our words carefully in public, and Petraeus is keenly aware of the effect his words are going to have. Gates has just ratcheted up the pressure a notch.

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