The Big Idea

Don’t Mention the War

Why candidates aren’t talking about what to do in Iraq.

The biggest problem our country faces is the war we are losing in Iraq. The most shocking aspect of the national election we are holding in six weeks is that candidates aren’t discussing what to do about it.

The reasons for ignoring the elephant in the room are apparent. Republicans in tight races can’t easily disown Bush’s policies, but they may be able to change the subject. Focusing on what to do now highlights the catastrophe the president has created and his lack of any plausible strategy for fixing it. Republican politicians would rather frame the campaign around local issues or the larger question of security, under which Bush and the national party are trying to subsume Iraq

Democratic candidates avoid talking about the future in Iraq based on a different calculation. For them, Bush’s past deceptions and mistakes are winning issues. But they share a problem with Republicans, which is that they don’t have a clue what to do next, either. Some bandy about the term “redeployment,” the favored euphemism for withdrawal. But for Democrats, any explicit talk about a pullout raises the old specter that they are defeatists, weaklings, and generally squishy on terrorism.

What might candidates be saying about the future of Iraq if they weren’t in avoidance mode? Outside the confines of the campaign—and inside various think tanks, magazines, and foreign-policy circles—you can find lots of provocative ideas about Iraq policy. Somewhere to the right of Bush, neocons like William Kristol argue that we can still win, but only if we send more troops to secure the country. Kristol’s plan has the advantage of honesty about how little the Iraqi military forces we’ve been trying to train are able to accomplish without us. It has the disadvantage of being utterly unrealistic about our remaining military, financial, and political resources.

Others who still imagine that some sort of American victory is possible include Andrew Krepinevich Jr., a promoter of the so-called oil-spot approach to counterinsurgency. This theory, which envisions creating secure enclaves for Iraqi civilians instead of playing “whack-a-mole” with terrorists, is what the military has theoretically been trying to do in Iraq for at least the past year. It forms the basis for the “clear, hold, and build” concept at the core of the National Security Council’s November 2005 National Strategy for Victory in Iraq, which Bush promoted by making a speeches in front of “Plan for Victory” wallpaper. Krepinevich’s plan is supposed to allow for a gradual drawdown in troops by relying on Iraq forces to do the “hold” part of the job, though this isn’t working very well in practice. It also anticipates taking more than a decade to succeed and runs up the challenge of maintaining political support for a long war of attrition.

Closer to the political center are a variety of interesting, complicated, lesser-evil solutions. Several of these were hashed out in an excellent Foreign Affairs symposium a couple of months ago. The most compelling is the case for a decentralized, federalized Iraq advanced by Leslie Gelb, the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware. Gelb proposes that we put our weight behind a more radical version of decentralization than the one embodied in the current Iraqi constitution. This would mean an Iraq divided into three parts: autonomous Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni regions, with a weak central government to divvy up oil revenues and serve common interests. Gelb’s plan also calls for an international conference to get neighboring powers to promise to keep out. It envisions withdrawing most of our troops by the end 2008, while leaving a “small but effective residual force” in Iraq indefinitely.

In a recent book titled The End of Iraq, Peter Galbraith, a former ambassador to Croatia and an advocate for the Kurds, puts forth a more drastic version of this. Galbraith calls for the partition of Iraq into three separate countries: a democratic Kurdistan, a Shiite theocracy in the south, and a God-only-knows regime in the Sunni triangle. But Galbraith trips over the same insoluble problem Gelb does: Iraq’s populations are blended like a fruit smoothie, especially in the cities of Mosul, Kirkuk, and Baghdad. Any form of ethnic division would mean an exchange of populations, large-scale communal violence, and the endless tensions that followed partition in India and Israel in 1947 and 1948. Galbraith acknowledges that a breakup of Iraq would mean “enormous bloodshed” but thinks there isn’t much we can do to prevent it anyhow.

Moving to the liberal side of the spectrum, Lawrence Korb, a former Reagan administration Department of Defense official, has been arguing for a “strategic redeployment,” or staged withdrawal, of nearly all U.S. forces by the end of 2007. Korb’s plan, which represents mainstream Democratic thinking, envisions keeping a significant U.S. presence in the region while continuing to spend billions for Iraqi reconstruction and democracy support. Korb wants to get out of Iraq in large part to save the beleaguered volunteer army. He calls his withdrawal scheme “the best among bad options” and argues that the Bush administration “has left us no better choice.”

Defining the left boundary is the still-ticking George McGovern, co-author of a new book called Out of Iraqthat recommends that America and Britain withdraw all their troops by June 2007 and begin making various kinds of reparations payments. The “Come Home, America” plan, which partly echoes the withdrawal proposal made last year by Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, has the disadvantage that it doesn’t begin to come to grips with what might happen after our precipitous departure—all-out Iraqi civil war, genocide, a wider regional conflict, and a triumphant victory for America’s enemies. It has the advantage of candor. As with Vietnam, McGovern wants us to just admit we lost and pull the plug.

Reviewing these proposed strategies suggests another, less partisan reason why House and Senate candidates seem so disengaged from the question of what to do in Iraq. The situation is hopeless. The best that our leading foreign-policy minds have been able to come up with is a grim choice among forms of failure and defeat. In a country of optimists, no politician wants to deliver that message.