How To Wage a Pullout

Withdrawal is a tricky business.

Ehud Olmert and George W. Bush

It was Nov. 13, 1990, when then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney met with former colleagues from the House of Representatives to talk about the “offensive option” to push back the Iraqi forces occupying Kuwait that was awaiting a presidential decision.

“It was a chaotic discussion,” Bob Woodward reports in The Commanders. When Cheney said, “I assume all you guys want to vote up or down on the proposition,” the room “erupted. There were shouts of no and yes. It only confirmed Cheney’s view that Congress was not equipped to deal with the issue.” This wasn’t just Cheney’s view, it was also the president’s.

As was first espoused by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, and then enshrined in the Powell Doctrine, to avoid entanglement and stalemate, wars should be fought only after an exit strategy has been devised. One important reason for keeping conflicts short is on display this week: Long wars don’t just mean a bloodier struggle and a more complicated effort to sustain public support. They also ignite a power struggle over the crucial question of whose responsibility it is to wage war.

Like his father, President George W. Bush never believed in Congress’ right to intervene in war-related decisions. When Bush senior decided to surge America’s forces in the Persian Gulf to prepare an offensive action against Saddam Hussein, he ignored the outcry from Democrats in Congress and kept a close eye on his watch: Acting fast was key to preventing political forces from inserting themselves into the war-waging process.  He avoided a possible struggle with legislators by deciding to halt the war after only 100 hours—a mistake, and a luxury, not available to his son.

Which brings us to this week’s debate in the Senate. But the Senate doesn’t want to wage war; it wants to end it. The real dilemma in Iraq is not whether to leave, a decision that voters have already made for the president. Rather, it is deciding what outcome the United States will leave behind once withdrawal is accomplished. Some say: Let the Iraqis shed each other’s blood until they solve the problem for themselves, one way or another. Others say: It’s impossible to evade responsibility for the fate of Iraqis, and it is also impossible to leave a dangerous vacuum behind.

In April 16, 2000, Israeli Foreign Minister David Levi issued a formal letter to then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Israel, he announced, would withdraw its forces from Southern Lebanon by July. He asked for cooperation and for the United Nations to bulk up its forces in the area to secure the Lebanese-Israeli border. About a month earlier, the Israeli government had approved a plan to withdraw Israeli forces after 18 years in the so-called “security zone”—but it was a conditioned approval. Israel would pull out only after reaching an agreement with the other side. Without an agreement, the matter would be referred back for “further discussion.”

Then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak had a plan. Setting a deadline for withdrawal would pressure the Syrians into a serious dialogue for fear of losing their best negotiating card with Israel, their control over the actions of Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon. Barak also faced mounting domestic pressure to withdraw. Israelis were tired of the slow but constant bleeding inside Lebanon, and they wanted a way out. Barak thought he was going to get a bargain—withdrawal from Lebanon and peace with Syria. But by the end of May, it was evident that although the Syrians were unmoved by his deadline, events were spiraling out of control. As friendly local Lebanese forces collapsed, and Hezbollah advanced toward the border, Israel had to leave Lebanon in haste. No agreement, no security, no peace, no “further discussion.”

None of this means that the decision to withdraw from Lebanon was wrong. Seven years after the fact—and a year after another round of battle in Southern Lebanon—most Israelis still think it was the right move. But listening to this week’s discussion in the U.S. Senate about resolutions that will enforce an American pullout from Iraq, you have to pinch yourself to remember that this is another place they are talking about, another war, a different public opinion, another deadline to pressure another government. It is not only war that is a tricky business to manage—pullouts, as has been proved time and again in recent decades, are no different.

Writing in today’s Washington Post, David Ignatius refers not to the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon of 2000, but to events that occurred 18 years earlier: “The last time I remember Ambassador Ryan Crocker warning about a possible bloodbath, it was in September 1982 as the Sabra-Shatila massacre was taking place in Beirut. So when Crocker tells the New York Times that a rapid U.S. withdrawal from Iraq could produce a human tragedy on a far larger scale, people should take notice. He has seen it happen before.”

The bottom line is similar, though: Whether they are forced by events to withdraw (the United States in Vietnam, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan), or whether they are motivated by strategic thinking (Israel in Lebanon) or by public opinion (the United States in Lebanon in the early ‘80s, Israel in Gaza), leaders cannot predict or control the unintended consequences of their actions.

But one thing is clear, and it can be seen time and again in the examples above: Leaving a chaotic place with no one to hand the keys to can be very dangerous. In Vietnam, the result was victory for the North; in Afghanistan, the emergence of the Taliban regime; in Lebanon, the strengthening of Hezbollah; in Gaza, the domination of Hamas.

And there’s something else we shouldn’t forget: When a decision to withdraw is made, there’s hardly ever a chance to turn back. The players on the ground in Iraq are already watching and adjusting to the possibility of a pullout. Once the wheels are set in motion, there’s rarely a chance for “further discussion.”