War Stories

Two Ways Out

Iraq plans Bush won’t consider, but his successor should.

Two new essays on how to disengage from Iraq are making the rounds, and though they hail from very different quarters (one, by Steven Simon, is published by the Council on Foreign Relations; the other, by Juan Cole, appears in the Nation), their conclusions are strikingly similar.

They both reject the Bush administration’s stay-the-course surge and the congressional Democrats’ insistence on a fixed timetable for withdrawal.

And they’re also both utterly unlikely to receive the slightest attention from President George W. Bush.

In short, it seems, we’re all stuck in a holding pattern, doomed to mere “muddling through,” until somebody else sets up shop in the White House on Jan. 20, 2009—an unbelievable 651 days of mayhem to go.

The showdown over the emergency-spending bill—to which the House and Senate have attached requirements for troop withdrawals—isn’t likely to settle matters. Bush’s recent recess appointments of nominees that the Senate had been on the verge of rejecting—most notably Sam Fox, who heavily funded the Swift Boat Veterans in the 2004 presidential elections, as the new ambassador to Belgium—is a blatant signal that he has no interest in compromising with what he and Vice President Dick Cheney see as interlopers of executive authority. And over the weekend, key Democrats conceded that if Bush vetoed the bill, they’d drop their withdrawal clause rather than let the money for troops run out. (The concession merely acknowledged reality, but conceding so quickly surrenders whatever bargaining power they might have possessed.)

So, the $93 billion in emergency spending for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan will likely go forth with no strings attached.

The vast majority of Congress doesn’t really want to impose a strict deadline for withdrawing most of the troops; the Democratic leadership went that route because it conformed to the one power that Congress has in these matters, the power of the purse. Most Democrats were trying to pressure the president into recognizing that his strategy isn’t working and to link America’s military commitment to some set of political benchmarks or conditions on the part of the Iraqis.

But George W. Bush has said over and over—and it’s past time people realize that he generally does believe what he says—that he’s not interested in attaching any conditions to his military commitment. (In the minds of Bush and Cheney, when it comes to war powers, the president is America.) He knows that he’s right on Iraq, that History is on his side—end of discussion.

So, let’s turn to the two withdrawal proposals with the longer-term aim of encouraging Bush’s aspiring successors to look them over and think about adopting them as policy immediately upon entering the Oval Office.

Simon, a Middle East specialist and former National Security Council official, and Cole, professor of Middle East studies at the University of Michigan, have three common premises. First, the surge and the new counterinsurgency strategy almost certainly won’t work, in part because the war is not just an insurgency war but also a civil war involving three sects  (and divisions within those sects) against one another. Second, the U.S. occupation strengthens the insurgents and broadens their support at least as much as it weakens or isolates them.

However, third, they also emphasize that real hell would break out if U.S. forces suddenly or arbitrarily withdrew. Cole, while fiercely critical of Bush’s policies on Iraq and much else, has long been adamant on this point—that there are degrees of civil war and Iraq hasn’t begun to approach the full boil that an unconditional pullout might ignite.

Simon and Cole agree that the United States’ main goals, at this point, should be to limit the effects of the civil war (which is already well in progress) and to keep the conflagration from spreading across the region.

It may seem paradoxical at first glance, but the best way to accomplish both goals may be to declare that we are leaving—that we’re doing so on a timetable to be negotiated with the Iraqi government and in tandem with a separate, broader negotiation to end the civil war, but we are getting out.

The impending departure of U.S. troops may impel mainstream Sunni insurgents to turn against the jihadists. It may also compel the Sunni Arabs to take part in the negotiations on some national accord, knowing that American troops will not be there to protect them against Shiite or Kurdish reprisals. Cole further recommends holding new provincial elections so that the elected Sunni Arab representatives could stand in for guerrilla groups in the national talks, as Sinn Fein did in Northern Ireland.

However, both Simon and Cole emphasize, this step must be linked to active engagement with all of Iraq’s neighbors. Cole lays out a scenario in which the United States and Britain work with the United Nations or the Organization of the Islamic Conference on this task, citing as a model the Bonn conference of December 2001 that helped install a unity government in Afghanistan. He envisions the Iraqi government arranging formal security commitments with the foreign ministers of Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. He also suggests inviting Saudi Arabia to reprise the role it played in brokering an end to the Lebanese civil war in 1989, noting the credibility that King Abdullah has with the Sunni Arabs—though he notes, in that case, the Iranians will have to play a similar role in helping to shut down the Shiite militias, especially Muqtada Sadr’s Mahdi army.

Under this scheme, the United States would negotiate a phased withdrawal in tandem with these political settlements. Simon notes that some U.S. troops should stay—to secure Baghdad International Airport, the Green Zone, and access routes in between. He also urges a stepped-up U.S. military presence elsewhere in the Persian Gulf. Cole is not in favor of a total U.S. pullout, either. (Nor, it should be noted, are the House or Senate Democrats, who, in their bills, provide continued funding for troops involved in counterterrorism, training Iraqi security forces, and protecting U.S. personnel.)

Short of a transformation akin to that of Paul on the road to Damascus, it’s hard to imagine George W. Bush even beginning to take these ideas seriously. That would entail admitting that victory isn’t possible, legitimizing certain factions of the insurgency, and—most revolting of all—negotiating with Iran and Syria. Add them together, and it’s just too many hurdles to leap.

If the next president puts something like these plans in motion, will they amount to anything? Neither Simon nor Cole is naive on this score. Both admit their proposals are gambles. For my own part, I doubt that the Iranians have a deep interest in a stable Iraq and wonder, with trepidation, what price they’d demand in exchange for helping to build one.

Still, as Cole puts it, “A withdrawal is risky, but on the evidence so far, for the U.S. military to remain in Iraq is a sure recipe for disaster.”