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Saving Iraq

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
Updated: August 22, 2006


The numbers out of Iraq paint an unpleasant picture. In July alone, 3,438 Iraqis were killed, a 9 percent increase over June's death toll (Brookings Iraq Index). American soldiers are dying less, but, because of the proliferation of roadside bombs, more are getting wounded, according to a study by the U.S. military made available to the New York Times. Mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad are growing less mixed, due to sectarian violence by Shiite-run death squads and Sunni-led insurgents. Analysts Daniel L. Byman and Kenneth M. Pollack assert that "by any definition, Iraq is in a state of civil war" (WashPost). All the while, the cost of the Iraq campaign to U.S. taxpayers—some $318 billion—is climbing (CDI).

What went wrong? The most common refrain among many experts is there were too few troops to secure such a big place. "NATO put over 100,000 troops into Bosnia and Kosovo, societies that in combination are around a fifth of the size of Iraq's," writes James Dobbins of the RAND Corporation in this Foreign Affairs roundtable. Others, as this Stanford University report indicates, claim the U.S. military, regardless of its size on the ground, cannot stop a civil war and should therefore either pull out or take a side "to expedite its conclusion." In a press conference on Monday, President Bush acknowledged the difficulties in Iraq are "straining the psyche of our country" but vowed not to pull troops out until Iraq is stabilized (USA Today).

As the violence escalates, a number of U.S. commentators are clamoring for the Bush administration to provide a "Plan B" option. This new Backgrounder examines the various "Plan B" scenarios and their proponents. Even early supporters of the war, like Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, have changed course and now claim "we can't throw more good lives after good lives." CFR Senior Fellow Max Boot says President Bush "needs to do something radical to shake up a deteriorating status quo if we are to have any hope of averting the worst American military defeat since Vietnam." Others, including Judith S. Yaphe of the National Defense University, argue that the Bush administration's decision to "stay the course" or "adapt to win," while unattractive and maybe more costly in the short term, is preferable to pulling out the troops, sending in more divisions, or, worse, partitioning Iraq into three ethnic enclaves.

U.S. opinion surveys also project tough times for lawmakers who support the Bush administration's policy in Iraq and are up for reelection. Polls show that 59 percent of Americans, heading into November's midterm elections, think things in Iraq are on the wrong track. "Terrorism is an important issue to Americans, but when it comes to judging Bush's presidency, their decision is based largely on Iraq," says John Zogby, an independent pollster. And some commentators say politicians are beginning to grasp that their positions on the war can make or break their careers. The defeat of Joe Lieberman, a supporter of the Iraq war, in the Democratic primary for Senate in Connecticut demonstrates "a clear sign of the Iraqi worm turning," writes Simon Jenkins in the Sunday Times (Lieberman, however, is showing resilience as an independent candidate). Twelve top Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill sent President Bush a letter in late July calling for the beginnings of a withdrawal by year's end. Republicans responded by painting their opponents as weak on terror and "Bugs Bunny Democrats" to emphasize that, in the words of Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, "They're all carrot and no stick."

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