The Disaster of Hasty Withdrawal

The Washington Post

Two realities define the range of a meaningful debate on Iraq policy: The war cannot be ended by military means alone. But neither is it possible to “end” the war by ceding the battlefield. The radical jihadist challenge knows no frontiers; American decisions in the next few months will affect the confidence and morale of potential targets, potential allies and radical jihadists around the globe. Above all, they will define the U.S. capacity to contribute to a safer and better world. The imperative is for bipartisan cooperation in a coordinated political and military strategy, even while the political cycle tempts a debate geared to focus groups.

The experience of Vietnam is often cited as the example for the potential debacle that awaits us in Iraq. But we will never learn from history if we keep telling ourselves myths about it. The passengers on American helicopters fleeing Saigon were not U.S. troops but Vietnamese civilians. American forces had left two years earlier. Vietnam collapsed because of the congressional decision to reduce aid by two-thirds to Vietnam and to cut it off altogether for Cambodia in the face of a massive North Vietnamese invasion that violated every provision of the Vietnam Peace Agreement.

Should America repeat a self-inflicted wound? An abrupt withdrawal from Iraq would not end the war; it would only redirect it. Within Iraq, the sectarian conflict could assume genocidal proportions; terrorist base areas could reemerge. Lebanon may slip into domination by Iran’s ally, Hezbollah; a Syria-Israel war or an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities may become more likely as Israel attempted to break the radical encirclement; Turkey and Iran would probably squeeze Kurdish autonomy. The Taliban in Afghanistan would gain new impetus. Countries where the radical threat is as yet incipient, such as India, would face a mounting domestic challenge. Pakistan, in the process of a delicate political transformation, would encounter more radical pressures and might even turn into a radical challenge itself. That is what is meant by “precipitate” withdrawal — a withdrawal in which the United States loses the ability to shape events, either within Iraq, on the anti-jihadist battlefield or in the world at large.

The proper troop level in Iraq will not be discovered by political compromise at home. To be sure, no “dispensable” forces should be retained there. Yet the definition of “dispensable” must be based on strategic and political criteria. If reducing troop levels turns into the litmus test of American politics, each withdrawal will generate demands for additional ones until the political, military and psychological framework collapses. An appropriate Iraq strategy requires political direction. But the political dimension must be the ally of military strategy, not a resignation from it.

Symbolic withdrawals, urged by such wise elder statesmen as Sens. John Warner and Richard Lugar, might indeed assuage the immediate public concerns. They should be understood, however, as palliatives; their utility depends on a balance between their capacity to reassure the U.S. public and their propensity to encourage America’s adversaries to believe that they are the forerunners of complete retreat.

The argument that the mission of U.S. forces should be confined to defeating terrorism, protecting the frontiers, preventing the emergence of Taliban-like structures and staying out of the civil war aspects is also tempting. In practice, it will be difficult to distinguish among the various aspects of the conflict with any precision.

Some answer that the best political result is most likely to be achieved by total withdrawal. The option of basing policies on the most favorable assumptions about the future is, of course, always available. Yet nothing in Middle East history suggests that abdication confers influence. Those who urge this course of action need to put forward their recommendations for action if what occurs are the dire consequences of an abrupt withdrawal foreseen by the majority of experts and diplomats.

The missing ingredient has not been a withdrawal schedule but a political and diplomatic design connected to a military strategy. The issue is not whether Arab or Muslim societies can ever become democratic; it is whether they can become so under American military guidance in a time frame for which the U.S. political process will stand.

American exhortations for national reconciliation are based on constitutional principles drawn from the Western experience. But it is impossible to achieve this in a six-month period defined by the “surge” in an artificially created state racked by the legacy of a thousand years of ethnic and sectarian conflicts. Experience should teach us that trying to manipulate fragile political structures — particularly one resulting from American-sponsored elections — is likely to play into radical hands. Nor are the present frustrations with Baghdad’s performance a sufficient excuse to impose a strategic disaster on ourselves. However much Americans may disagree about the decision to intervene or about the policy afterward, the United States is in Iraq in large part to serve the American commitment to global order, not as a favor to the Baghdad government.

It is possible that the present structure in Baghdad is incapable of national reconciliation because its elected constituents were chosen on a sectarian basis. A wiser course would be to place more emphasis on the three principal regions and promote technocratic, efficient and humane administration in each. The provision of services and personal security coupled with emphasis on economic, scientific and intellectual development may represent the best hope for fostering a sense of community. More efficient regional government leading to a substantial decrease in the level of violence, to progress toward the rule of law and to functioning markets could over time give Iraqis an opportunity for national reconciliation — especially if no region is strong enough to impose its will on the others by force. Failing that, the country may well drift into de facto partition under the label of autonomy, such as already exists in the Kurdish region. That very prospect might encourage the Baghdad political forces to move toward reconciliation. Much depends on whether it is possible to create a genuine national army rather than an agglomeration of competing militias.

The second and ultimately decisive route to overcoming the Iraqi crisis is through international diplomacy. Today the United States is bearing the major burden for regional security militarily, politically and economically in the face of passivity of the designated potential victims. Yet many other nations know that their internal security and, in some cases, their survival will be affected by the outcome in Iraq. That passivity cannot last. These countries must participate in the construction of a civil society, and the best way for us to foster those efforts is to turn reconstruction into a cooperative international effort under multilateral management.

It will not be possible to achieve these objectives in a single, dramatic move. The military outcome in Iraq will ultimately have to be reflected in some international recognition and some international enforcement of its provisions. The international conference of Iraq’s neighbors and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council has established a possible forum for this. A U.N. role in fostering such a political outcome could be helpful.

Such a strategy is the best path to reduce America’s military presence in the long run; an abrupt reduction of American forces will impede diplomacy and set the stage for more intense military crises down the road.

Pursuing diplomacy inevitably raises the question of how to deal with Iran. Cooperation is possible and should be encouraged with an Iran that pursues stability and cooperation. Such an Iran has legitimate aspirations that need to be respected. But an Iran that practices subversion and seeks regional hegemony — which appears to be the current trend — must be faced with lines it will not be permitted to cross: The industrial nations cannot accept radical forces dominating a region on which their economies depend, and the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran is incompatible with international security. These truisms need to be translated into effective policies, preferably common policies with allies and friends.

None of these objectives can be realized, however, unless two conditions are met: The United States needs to maintain a presence in the region on which its supporters can count and which its adversaries have to take seriously. The country must recognize that whatever decisions are made now, multiple crises in Iraq, in the Middle East and to world order will continue after a new administration takes office. Bipartisanship is a necessity, not a tactic.