There are two big schools of thought about what the U.S. should do next in Iraq, and both schools are almost certainly wrong.
The first, represented by many congressional Democrats, argues that it is past the time for America to leave. The best thing that could happen now is for the U.S. to pull out as quickly as possible, force the Iraqis to take control of their destinies and compel the oil-rich gulf states in the neighborhood to get off the sidelines. In this view, leaving Iraq would deny al-Qaeda its best recruiting tool, a large U.S. military presence in the Middle East. Along the way, the U.S. could save the $10 billion a month that it is spending on the war and rescue the U.S. Army and Marine Corps before they both collapse.
To the other school, it’s just as clear that the only possible course is to continue to fight for as long as it takes. Espoused by Bush Administration officials, the contention of this group is that by withdrawing from Iraq, we’d unleash a bloodbath, hand al-Qaeda and Iran huge victories, destabilize the Persian Gulf and empower terrorists everywhere to attack our allies and our homeland. In the face of those dangers, say the White House and its backers, America has no choice but to remain in Iraq until a democracy emerges from the chaos of the Middle East a project they openly acknowledge is the work of a generation.
Four years after the U.S. invaded Iraq, neither approach makes much sense. Political support for the war has cratered; Americans want the troops brought home. But they also know that it isn’t likely to happen soon and that no matter when America leaves, Iraq could well become a more chaotic, violent place. They have learned that in the Middle East the U.S. has very little, if any, control over what might occur. And no matter what your views of the war or its genesis, things are likely to turn out different from what you expect.
As the White House and Congress bicker over timetables and benchmarks, intelligence estimates and report cards, the real question is the one neither camp is facing very well: How do we leave in a way that maximizes the good that we can still achieve and minimizes the damage that will inevitably occur The best strategic minds in both parties have argued for months that the answer is essentially to muddle our way out, cut our losses carefully and try to salvage what we can from a mission gone bad. Even under the rosiest scenarios, the U.S. will suffer a humbling blow to its prestige as it leaves Iraq and the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war intensifies. But with the debacle would come some dividends. Done judiciously, a pullback from the war would start restoring America’s ability to advance its interests and deter aggression beyond Iraq.
What’s needed is not the sloganeering of certain politicians but a clear-eyed, multifaceted policy. That would involve making plain to the Iraqi government our intention to pull back, followed by an orderly withdrawal of about half the 160,000 troops currently in Iraq by the middle of 2008. A force of 50,000 to 100,000 troops would dig in for a longer stay to protect America’s most vital interests: denying al- Qaeda a safe haven and preventing an almost inevitable civil war from spilling into neighboring countries. At the same time, the reduction in the U.S.’s military footprint in the region should be accompanied by a sustained surge in American diplomacy.
Slowly backing out of Iraq is hardly inspiring and won’t be likely to satisfy either the President or his opponents. It may look just as messy as what the U.S. is doing now. But a responsible retreat would limit U.S. casualties and move America out of a debilitating chapter that has now played out politically at home, if not militarily on the ground. In a world of bad options, a phased withdrawal is the least bad one out there.