Almost surely President George W. Bush will keep
the American military in Iraq until he leaves office. He will kick the war down
the calendar and leave it to the incoming president. So what should the president
do when he or she takes office? The president can retain the Bush policy of
attempting to Iraqize the war by pushing for national reconciliation of the
various religious and ethnic groups and by turning over the fighting to an Iraqi
army and to an Iraqi police force. This may take a decade or more; in all probability
it is impossible. The Kurds want independence and the northern oil; the southern
Shi'ites want the southern oil and close alignment with Iran; the Sunnis want
us out and them in. At the moment most of the police are Shi'ites beholden to
various factions. The army, which, under Suddam, was run by the Sunnis, is now
controlled by the Shi'ites. Settling the issue of who will control Kirkut makes
Solomon’s decision on who should get the baby look easy. Sorting this out will
take many years at a high cost in American lives and American treasure. In the
end we may not succeed.
Alternatively the president could announce a phase down of troops over the
next four years with a pull back to large fortified bases. Although this would
reduce American casualties, it would not eliminate them. Nor would the current
Iraqi government, which needs American troops to survive, welcome it. The purpose
of keeping troops bottled up in bases in Iraq remains unclear. Perhaps it is
to maintain a presence that will prevent Iran from attacking Israel or any other
nearby state. But U.S. forces need not be in the Middle East to deter aggression
against Israel; our long-range bombers will do that nicely. Large concentrations
of our troops make wonderful targets for Iran, al-Qaeda, or other terrorist
groups. Moreover, keeping a large number of American soldiers in Iraq for an
extensive time will convert this war from Bush’s folly to the next president’s
The third option, the one that most politicians avoid talking about, is pulling
our troops out as fast as we can do it. This would minimize the cost to the
American people both of causalities and expenditures. By the time the next president
takes office, we will have spent more on the Iraq war than on any other, even
adjusting for inflation. More of our resources should not be thrown into that
swamp, but pulling the troops out quickly has a huge political cost. As the
administration has claimed, it may result in an increase in violence in Iraq
as the various religious and ethnic powers fight for control over oil and land.
It could, although it seems unlikely, bring into the conflict neighboring states,
such as Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. The only state really likely
to intervene would be Turkey, which wants to prevent an independent Kurdistan
and protect its ethnic kinsmen, the Turkmen, who live in northern Iraq and around
Kirkuk. Pressure from Brussels, making it clear that EU membership is not possible
if Ankara attacks northern Iraq and from the U.S. and NATO might minimize its
involvement in Kurdistan.
From the point of view of the next president and his or her party, however,
the major cost will be the charge of "cutting and running." Americans
want us out of Iraq but with honor. They cannot countenance a repeat of troops
being evacuated by helicopter from the roof of an American embassy or from the
grounds of the Green Zone. Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon faced this problem
when they took office in the middle of an unpopular war. How do you leave? How
do you get out, without looking as if you are beaten? In both Korea
and Vietnam, America
had an identifiable enemy. It could negotiate an end. In Korea an armistice
was signed; in Vietnam, a peace treaty, which did not last long, was negotiated.
No victory was achieved in either conflict, but there was no "ignoble"
rout, at least initially. In Korea, we are still attempting to settle the war.
In Vietnam, we got all our ground forces out before we were forced to extract
our diplomatic personnel and its marine guard from the roof of the embassy as
the North Vietnam troops moved into Saigon. Thirty-odd years later we have diplomatic
and trade relations with Vietnam.
The only rational method of ending the Iraq debacle is for the next president,
on the day that he or she is inaugurated, to issue an order to the Pentagon
to bring all — I mean all — of our troops home from Iraq as soon as they can
be loaded onto ships and planes for the return. The size of our establishment
in the Green Zone should be reduced to the bare minimum; the huge numbers there
make it clear that America is running the country. By repatriating our soldiers
immediately, the president will minimize the flack and attacks by the opposition
on "cutting and running." The president can then hope that, by the
time of the next presidential election in 2012, the loss in Iraq will be history
and he or she can run on peace and the administration’s domestic policy.
Unfortunately no major candidate in either party is running on pulling out
immediately. In fact almost all of the top
candidates have refused to promise to repatriate all of our personnel by the
end of their first term. In both parties there are a few candidates in the
second or third tier that have made it clear that they will move quickly to
pull our troops back, but they have little chance of receiving their parties’
nod. The reluctance of the major players to promise to remove our troops stems
from their unwillingness to appear weak; they want to avoid admitting defeat.
Moreover, AIPAC — probably the most influential
lobby in America — controls a great deal of money and is strongly opposed to
the U.S. leaving the area. Its support in the primaries and in the election
depends on candidates who promise to maintain a strong presence in the Middle
Even though the public, as shown by numerous polls, wants us out of Iraq, the
next election will probably not achieve that end. Whoever wins will most likely
maintain our participation in that tragedy, always with the promise that there
is a "light at the end of the tunnel." The public will be told that,
if we just hang in there, victory, whatever that means, is achievable. The new
president will undoubtedly make a token drawdown of soldiers, but the U.S. will
continue to occupy Iraq and to maintain a major presence in that poor country.
The result will be a continuing flow of bodies coming home in caskets and of
seriously maimed young men and women while the congress will be required to
appropriate huge expenditures for our beleaguered forces. Restoring our good
name in the world will have to wait.