The Real Choice in Iraq

Washington Post

The administration’s rhetorical devolution speaks for itself. Yet, with some luck and with a more open decision-making process in the White House, greater political courage on the part of Democratic leaders and even some encouragement from authentic Iraqi leaders, the U.S. war in Iraq could (and should) come to an end within a year.

“Victory or defeat” is, in fact, a false strategic choice. In using this formulation, the president would have the American people believe that their only options are either “hang in and win” or “quit and lose.” But the real, practical choice is this: “persist but not win” or “desist but not lose.”

Victory, as defined by the administration and its supporters — i.e., a stable and secular democracy in a unified Iraqi state, with the insurgency crushed by the American military assisted by a disciplined, U.S.-trained Iraqi national army — is unlikely. The U.S. force required to achieve it would have to be significantly larger than the present one, and the Iraqi support for a U.S.-led counterinsurgency would have to be more motivated. The current U.S. forces (soon to be reduced) are not large enough to crush the anti-American insurgency or stop the sectarian Sunni-Shiite strife. Both problems continue to percolate under an inconclusive but increasingly hated foreign occupation.

Moreover, neither the Shiites nor the Kurds are likely to subordinate their specific interests to a unified Iraq with a genuine, single national army. As the haggling over the new government has already shown, the two dominant forces in Iraq — the religious Shiite alliance and the separatist Kurds — share a common interest in preventing a restoration of Sunni domination, with each determined to retain a separate military capacity for asserting its own specific interests, largely at the cost of the Sunnis. A truly national army in that context is a delusion. Continuing doggedly to seek “a victory” in that fashion dooms America to rising costs in blood and money, not to mention the intensifying Muslim hostility and massive erosion of America’s international legitimacy, credibility and moral reputation.

The administration’s definition of “defeat” is similarly misleading. Official and unofficial spokesmen often speak in terms that recall the apocalyptic predictions made earlier regarding the consequences of American failure to win in Vietnam: dominoes falling, the region exploding and U.S. power discredited. An added touch is the notion that the Iraqi insurgents will then navigate the Atlantic and wage terrorism on the American homeland.

The real choice that needs to be faced is between:

An acceptance of the complex post-Hussein Iraqi realities through a relatively prompt military disengagement — which would include a period of transitional and initially even intensified political strife as the dust settled and as authentic Iraqi majorities fashioned their own political arrangements.

An inconclusive but prolonged military occupation lasting for years while an elusive goal is pursued.

It is doubtful, to say the least, that America’s domestic political support for such a futile effort could long be sustained by slogans about Iraq’s being “the central front in the global war on terrorism.”

In contrast, a military disengagement by the end of 2006, derived from a more realistic definition of an adequate outcome, could ensure that desisting is not tantamount to losing. In an Iraq dominated by the Shiites and the Kurds — who together account for close to 75 percent of the population — the two peoples would share a common interest in Iraq’s independence as a state. The Kurds, with their autonomy already amounting in effect to quasi-sovereignty, would otherwise be threatened by the Turks. And the Iraqi Shiites are first of all Arabs; they have no desire to be Iran’s satellites. Some Sunnis, once they were aware that the U.S. occupation was drawing to a close and that soon they would be facing an overwhelming Shiite-Kurdish coalition, would be more inclined to accommodate the new political realities, especially when deprived of the rallying cry of resistance to a foreign occupier.

In addition, it is likely that both Kuwait and the Kurdish regions of Iraq would be amenable to some residual U.S. military presence as a guarantee against a sudden upheaval. Once the United States terminated its military occupation, some form of participation by Muslim states in peacekeeping in Iraq would be easier to contrive, and their involvement could also help to cool anti-American passions in the region.

In any case, as Iraqi politics gradually become more competitive, it is almost certain that the more authentic Iraqi leaders (not handpicked by the United States) — to legitimate their claim to power — will begin to demand publicly a firm date for U.S. withdrawal. That is all to the good. In fact, they should be quietly encouraged to do so, because that would increase their popular support while allowing the United States to claim a soberly redefined “Mission Accomplished.”

The requisite first step to that end is for the president to break out of his political cocoon. His policymaking and his speeches are the products of the true believers around him who are largely responsible for the mess in Iraq. They have a special stake in their definition of victory, and they reinforce his convictions instead of refining his judgments. The president badly needs to widen his circle of advisers. Why not consult some esteemed Republicans and Democrats not seeking public office — say, Warren Rudman or Colin Powell or Lee Hamilton or George Mitchell — regarding the definition of an attainable yet tolerable outcome in Iraq?

Finally, Democratic leaders should stop equivocating while carping. Those who want to lead in 2008 are particularly unwilling to state clearly that ending the war soon is both desirable and feasible. They fear being labeled as unpatriotic. Yet defining a practical alternative would provide a politically effective rebuttal to those who mindlessly seek an unattainable “victory.” America needs a real choice regarding its tragic misadventure in Iraq.

The writer was national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter.

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