The showdown in Washington over Iraq reflects distorted thinking on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. The White House is driven by the demons of presidential failure. Democrats’ left wing, bolstered by public opinion, has prevailed against the moderates, who opposed a timetable for withdrawal. In both directions lie dire outcomes.
The Democrats, who recognize that victory in Iraq is unachievable, have reason on their side. They must craft a solution that pulls centrist Republicans with them to avoid the “Who lost Iraq?” curse and achieve a course correction that saves lives and limits the damage to America’s strategic position. All of Iraq’s neighbors, and most Iraqis, want Washington to specify when US forces will leave. Sometime between now and the end of time, as Jon Stewart parodied the administration’s position, isn’t specific enough. The Democrats, however, go too far in the opposite direction. A complete drawdown by March 2008, per the Senate, or September 2008, as the House prefers, is too soon.
What’s needed is a timetable that meshes with politics at home and military and diplomatic realities in the Middle East. Washington will need to negotiate its withdrawal with the Iraqi government, assemble a coalition of neighbors to keep foreign fighters out of Iraq, cope with refugees from Iraq, help moderate Sunnis battle Al Qaeda, foster reconstruction, impede meddling outsiders, and plan for a humanitarian rescue if sectarian violence explodes after US forces leave.
And the departure has to be orderly. Residual troops need to be protected from attack. Nothing that isn’t intended for Iraqi Army use must be left behind. Mountains of materiel and 150,000 troops cannot be beamed up, as in “Star Trek,” instantaneously. Troops and equipment must be moved overland to Kuwait to be loaded onto ships for the journey home. It’s unlikely that all this can happen before the end of 2008.
Until both sides in the domestic political debate are ready to acknowledge all these realities, a political consensus on Iraq will remain elusive. It is up to the moderates in both parties to bring that consensus about.
This will require Democrats to take a more sober look at the practicalities of withdrawal, as well as their potential political vulnerabilities, and Republicans to press for the post-surge drawdown that Defense Secretary Robert Gates described to Congress in February. As a practical matter, this means a more or less complete withdrawal of combat forces by late 2008 or early 2009. Apart from being the most realistic time frame , this schedule would relieve the next president of the political and strategic burdens of disengagement.
At this point, though, even Republicans who see the war as futile have little incentive to back a withdrawal timetable. Many Republican voters still support the war, and the Democratic alternative—rapid withdrawal coupled to an unenforceable budget cut—looks more like a thrown gauntlet than a practical proposal. A plan predicated on a serious strategic calculus, however, would give Republicans something to embrace without appearing to turn coat. Nor could the White House easily dismiss such a plan as a partisan political maneuver. For Republicans running for reelection, a plan that took Iraq off the table before November 2008 might well be seductive.
And if the president were to spurn a reasonable, bipartisan off ramp, as he did with the Baker-Hamilton Report? Back to politics as usual. The Democrats will resurrect their budget hammer, congressional Republicans will be hamstrung as constituents who still supported the war in 2007 no longer show the same faith, and the incoming administration will have to manage rear guard actions against insurgents in Iraq and the opposition party at home. Just when America needs to demonstrate it can still act effectively, it will be paralyzed.
Every day that US troops remain in Iraq drives up the cost of gains already made: the elimination of Saddam Hussein and the opening of a door, however narrow, to democracy. The fact is that America must plan its departure from Iraq without achieving many of its goals. The tragedy of the US intervention is compounded by the need to trade the lives of more American soldiers for the time needed for an orderly withdrawal that doesn’t leave Iraq completely in the lurch. The sooner the administration and its opponents grasp this nettle, the better.
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