Is there a third way in Iraq?

At the end of last year, I was not enthusiastic about the proposed troop surge in Baghdad. In my view, it would be all but impossible to reduce the level of violence in the capital to a level that would cause the surge to be viewed here at home as a success. And without the perception of success, I feared that support for the war would erode to the point where we would end up withdrawing ignominiously from Iraq. Therefore, I suggested that the U.S. pull back from Baghdad and focus on al Anbar province, then an al Qaeda stronghold, and on strategic attacks on al Qaeda elsewhere. The hope was that, by defining success down a notch and at the same time lowering our casualites, we could make our effort in Iraq politically sustainable and thus avoid suffering a self-induced defeat.
As John notes below, President Bush said today that he seriously considered this approach (administration spokesmen also said this at the time the surge was announced). Bush rejected it for several reasons, all of which were reasonable. For one thing, retreat is not a winning strategy. For another, it would have been difficult (if not impossible) to gain Sunni political support in Anbar province while Sunnis were being massacred in Baghdad. And it would have been equally difficult to build and maintain a national, non-sectarian army under these circumstances.
More than half a year later, my fears about the surge have been realized. Sectarian killings and car bombings are down but not to levels anywhere close to what’s required for purposes of public opinion in this country. Therefore, public support for the war continues to decline and politicians are reacting accordingly.
So, should the administration adopt the course of action that I suggested last winter, which it seriously considered at that time? I think not. First, the surge wasn’t fully implemented until the middle of last month. It would be foolish to abandon this effort so quickly, particularly when the results thus far have been largely positive. Second, although Iraq’s political community hasn’t distinguished itself this year, many Iraqis have gone out on a limb in support of surge-related efforts. It would be immoral to cut that limb off after so short a period of time. Moreover, important gains, such as those in Anbar province, might well be lost.
Finally, I doubt that, by now, there’s a poltically sustainable middle ground between the current level of engagement and nearly full disengagement (it’s not clear that there was one at the end of last year either). If the Republican Senators urging the President Bush to change course believe otherwise, they should present that middle ground approach to the president in detail and commit to supporting it. They should not be taking about forging a bipartisan policy with the party of defeat.
But don’t hold your breath. This group doesn’t want to enable any approach that will keep us in Iraq. Any pretense to the contrary is best viewed as an attempt to sell the president on taking the first steps that will lead to withdrawal and defeat.
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