President Bush is re-evaluating his approach to Iraq, as he should. The Baker commission recommendations are expected to play a central role in Bush’s re-evaluation. Indeed, the “fix” may already be in — Bush may already know what, in essence, Baker will recommended, and he may be prepared to accept the recommendation. But while the rest of us wait, this may be a good time to think about what a reasonable change in course might be.
Some very smart people argue that, as David Rivkin put it in the National Review, there is no substitute for victory. In this spirit, Frederick Kagan in the Weekly Standard recommends, among other things, that we send in more troops. But whatever the merits of that approach in the abstract, it is not politically sustainable and is not, therefore, where this thing is headed. Is there any politically sustainable new approach that might be acceptable?
To analyze this question, we need to identify the reasons we have remained in Iraq for the past few years. I can think of five: (1) to avoid a humiliating Mogadishu-style defeat that will embolden our enemies, (2) to prevent parts of Iraq from becoming a base for anti-American terrorists, as Afghanistan was under the Taliban, (3) to prevent Iran from becoming the dominant player in portions of Iraq, (4) to prevent Iraqis from killing each other in sectarian strife, and (5) to promote a democratic Iraq. To me, the first two objectives are vital to our national security, and the third probably is very important to it. The fourth and fifth are extremely worthwhile objectives, but are not of high importance to our national security.
In terms of attainability, the first objective — avoiding defeat — is just a matter of will. The enemy can’t defeat us; defeat occurs only if we choose to withdraw. The second objective is also attainable. We have proven that we can crush al-Qaeda and other insurgents when they attempt to seize and hold territory. The third objective — blocking Iran — can also be achieved. The pro-Iranian militias cannot take out-and-out control as long as we’re around.
The fourth goal — preventing Iraqis from killing each other — has proven to be a bridge too far. There’s little reason to believe that we can accomplish this with our present level of force. Indeed, it’s not clear that we accomplish it even with higher levels. In any case, higher troop levels, and the death toll that would accompany them, are not politically sustainable.
As for promoting Iraqi democracy, we’ve done most of what we can do. A democratic system is in place. It’s up to the Iraqis to make it work.
It follows from this analysis that any scaled-down effort in Iraq should focus on achieving the first three objectives — the ones that are most vital and most attainable. What would this mean in practice? It would mean that we substantialy reduce our efforts to police Iraq and focus instead on military missions designed to kill anti-American terrorists and drive them out of territory they are attempting to hold. A friend who served in Iraq (Ramadi and Baghdad) during 2005-06 assures me that there is a clear distinction between these two types of missions. He adds that the second kind — real targeted military operations — tend to be (a) more effective and (b) less deadly for Americans than policing. According to my friend, American losses tend to occur not when we’re striking decisively at the enemy but when we’re rolling predictably down the streets of Baghdad or Ramadi on patrol duty.
Kagan estimates that the type of scaled down mission I’m describing would enable us to cut our troop level in half. If I’m right, it would also reduce our casualties even more dramatically. There would, of course, be a price because, without the Americans along side them, the Iraqis likely will be unable, and possibility unwilling, to police the really tough areas. And the price would not just be increased Iraqi bloodshed. Al Jazeera, foreign journalists, and our own MSM would harp on that bloodshed. We would be blamed for it in Iraq, in the Middle East generally, and in Europe. Our prestige would suffer. But there would be no repeat of Mogadishu or Beirut, no Taliban/al Qaeda style state or sub-state, and no Iranian takeover. And in time, the Sunnis and the Shia would probably sort things out by separating along sustainable boundaries.
Would this state of affairs be acceptable? There’s room for debate. But it seems likely that if the administration doesn’t find some politically sustainable approach that avoids defeat, the Democrats sooner or later will impose defeat on the country.
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