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Leave? Sure, but what's the plan?
A lot of people talk about getting out of Iraq, but no one offers a viable blueprint.
By WES ALLISON
Published July 22, 2007
WASHINGTON - So you want to get out of Iraq. Who doesn't?
The House of Representatives just voted to bring most U.S. troops home by next spring. The Senate tried to do the same, while a bipartisan Senate plan would shift the main role of U.S. troops from combat to helping Iraqi security forces.
The commander in chief, meanwhile, insists the safest route out of Iraq is to stay in Iraq.
With congressional Democrats at loggerheads with President Bush over how to proceed, and with enough Republican senators supporting the president's policy at least through September, the furor in Congress is likely to remain just that. A furor.
But the debate, which is expected to dominate Congress and national politics through the end of the year, may help push Washington toward the consensus on Iraq that the nation so badly needs.
If nothing else, it's a vehicle for examining just how tough it would be for the United States to adopt the Democrats' goal of leaving Iraq, and the consequences of doing so. It's also a vehicle for examining just how hard it may be for the president to stay the course in Iraq, given the increasing dissent he's facing at home.
"When you look at most of the positions people have advocated, none of them are a real plan, none of them offer a complete operational schedule," said Anthony Cordesman, a security analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies who writes reports on progress in Iraq. "None of them deal with that annoying detail called reality."
With a few variations, here's what the Senate was wrangling with last week:
Redeploy, or Cut and Run: The favored Democratic plan calls for beginning to pull troops within 120 days, with most troops out by next spring. This passed the House but was blocked by Republicans from coming to a vote in the Senate, where it was likely to pass as well.
With more than 3,600 U.S. troops dead, some 25,000 wounded, and more killed or maimed every day, polls show most Americans believe that leaving sounds pretty good.
But that's easier said than done. Military commanders and defense analysts say it would take 10 to 12 months for the orderly withdrawal of the 160,000 troops, 140-million tons of equipment, and 20,000 tanks, Humvees and other vehicles from Iraq. Maybe they could do it quicker, but that would be bloody.
Bigger are the long-term concerns: How invested should we be? We're already building the world's largest embassy in Baghdad. Who is going to guard it? And what about guarding the borders?
What obligation do we have to intervene if the war between Sunnis and Shiites gets worse, or if Shiite groups in the south turn on each other?
"If violence escalates, as most experts think it will, then we're going to be faced with a humanitarian disaster," said James Dobbins, head of defense policy at the nonpartisan Rand Corp.
Some experts, and many Democratic politicians, argue that pulling U.S. troops would force the country to get its political house in order. Lawrence J. Korb, assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration, said the president should at least set a date for withdrawal.
"The Iraqis think you're not going to leave, and they won't do what they need to do," said Korb, of the Democratic-leaning Center for American Progress. "The Iranians are going to want us tied down and bleeding until it's clear we're leaving and we're not a threat to them."
Democratic leaders have offered little but generalities for dealing with the aftermath of a U.S. withdrawal. Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana and co-chairman of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, said that's not enough.
"There is a feeling, particularly on the left, that the thing is so hopeless that the only thing you can do is just get out of there as quickly as we can. I think that would have a lot of adverse consequences," he said. "The left argues we already have adverse consequences. That's right. But a bad situation there could get worse."
Persevere, or Stay the Course: President Bush wants more time. More time for the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to coalesce, and more time for the surge of 30,000 more troops to deliver a decisive victory over those trying to hijack the democratic process.
But the current policy is getting tough to defend. Ordinary Iraqis reportedly celebrate when a family member dies from natural causes, rather than from a bomb.
The constant round of deployments has stretched the U.S. military thin and is wearing on the troops. A recent interim report released by the White House showed little improvement in violence and little progress by the Iraqi government in meeting political and economic benchmarks.
Few believe the Americans can deliver the military victory Bush desires, particularly with the relatively small size of the U.S. force there: 160,000 troops in a nation of about 23-million. And there isn't the political will to send more.
But for now, U.S. troops must provide cover for the fledgling government. It just isn't strong enough to stand on its own, and its security forces are unreliable, experts say.
"Iraq will not be won by the military. But it can be lost because of a lack of the U.S. military over there," said retired Marine Lt. Gen. Mike DeLong, who was deputy commander of the U.S. Central Command in Tampa during the invasion.
"It is a diplomatic-political decision. There's not a military answer to this, but the military has to be there."
Pivot and Shift: After being largely ignored by Republicans upon its release last winter, the Iraq Study Group's report is getting a fresh look from senators seeking middle ground.
Thirteen, including six Republicans, have co-sponsored a measure to essentially implement the Iraq Study Group's recommendations, which would shift U.S. troops from combatting the insurgency to helping the Iraqis do it.
U.S. forces would continue to dog al-Qaida terrorists and police Iraq's borders. It calls for the administration to use diplomacy to encourage more countries to help. And while the plan doesn't set a date for withdrawal, it calls for setting a goal.
Dobbins, who was an adviser to the Iraq Study Group, said the plan would reduce the profile of U.S. troops in Iraq, perhaps reducing casualties. But they would still be there to help.
"At this point there are no good options, but this is the least bad one," he said. "I think it has some possibility of working."
Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., refused to consider this option. But the fundamental question he and other lawmakers should ask themselves is this: Does the United States have a national interest in a stable Iraq?
Based on its oil reserves and its strategic location in the Middle East, as well as implications for America's standing in the world, most analysts say the answer is yes.
An unstable Iraq could become even more of a haven for al-Qaida. An unstable Iraq could upset the entire region, emboldening Iran to threaten Kuwait, Saudi Arabia or Israel.
An unstable Iraq could nudge the northern Iraqi Kurds, our best allies, to abandon hope and establish their own state, putting them on a deadly collision course with Turkey, a key NATO ally. What then?
President Bush says it would be folly to change course before a Sept. 15 progress report from Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, on how the surge is working.
Defense analysts say they've seen little to suggest much improvement, and Petraeus' deputy indicated last week that the military wants extra time.
But the political timeline may not allow for much more. The risk facing President Bush - and the nation's long-term interests in Iraq - is that his refusal to compromise now may ultimately cost him so much support later that Congress grabs the reins, and that a hasty retreat will follow.
So far, Republicans in the U.S. Senate and the president's veto power have repulsed the Democratic assaults.
But four Republican senators voted for last week's amendment calling for an April 30, 2008, withdrawal date. Several more, including reliable hands like Richard Lugar of Indiana, Pete Domenici of New Mexico and John Warner of Virginia, are campaigning for change. It does not help that 21 GOP senators face re-election in fall of next year.
"I think the Congress is forcing the issue," said Cordesman, the analyst at CSIS and a Republican. "If the president doesn't do better, the way in which that issue is forced is going to be a much more precipitous and less well-organized withdrawal."
Dobbins predicted that "sometime in next six to 12 months, American commitment to Iraq will stop going up and will start dropping, either to zero or some other level."
"That will be a very dangerous, unstable, potentially volatile period," he added. "And it's going to impose on the administration a requirement for strong management and diplomatic finesse, which it has not exhibited much over the last six years."
The Democrats are right: The president got us into this mess. But as politically satisfying as it might be for Democrats and some Republicans to wipe their hands of it, both sides must work toward a solution. The obligations of a democracy demand it.
"You can blame it on whoever you want ... but the executive and the legislative branches have not been able to come up with a unified effort in Iraq," Hamilton said.
"Congress going one way and the president going another, I guess, satisfies a lot of factions in the country. But it doesn't help Iraq."
Wes Allison covers Congress and national politics. He can be reached at email@example.com or 202 463-0577.