Little to Argue About on Iraq


Dec 7, 2005

This commentary originally appeared in The Hill on December 7, 2005.

The American debate over Iraq has fallen into considerable confusion. Many Democrats are urging a timetable for American withdrawal. President Bush rejects any suggestion that the United States should “cut and run.”

American generals brief Congress and the media on U.S. efforts to create the conditions for a troop drawdown. Democratic senators offer a resolution calling for a phased withdrawal, and Vice President Cheney responds by suggesting they have lost their memories and their backbones. Republican senators pass an alternative, more cautiously phrased resolution urging much the same thing as the Democrats, which they claim to have cleared the with the White House. In the House, members almost come to blows over a resolution on the war, which they then reject almost unanimously.

Where then are the differences?

The Bush administration, its generals and leading opposition figures such as Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) agree on the central element of American strategy in Iraq, Iraqization. Almost no one is suggesting that U.S. troops should remain, in their current numbers, until the insurgency is suppressed. Few Republican leaders agree with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that American troop levels should be substantially increased, and few Democrats agree with Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) that American troops should be pulled out quickly and completely. Everyone is agreed that the fight should be progressively transferred to the Iraqi army and police as rapidly as they can be readied to accept the burden.

Neither does there seem any great difference between the administration and its critics on the pace of withdrawals. Everyone hopes for a significant drawdown in 2006, but few are suggesting that an American withdrawal could prudently be completed in that time frame.

Part of the argument is, of course, an effort to assign, share or evade blame for current difficulties. Insofar as current divergences relate to future actions, however, they seem to reflect less the content of the policy and more its intended audience.

The president is speaking to his base, which wants to be reassured that the war can be won. The generals are speaking to those in Congress and the armed services who want to be reassured that the manpower and equipment burdens imposed by the war will be relieved before the Army breaks under the strain. The administration's critics are speaking to the growing segment of the population that now questions the wisdom of having invaded Iraq and wants an exit strategy.

Bush has good reason to worry that an explicit embrace of phased withdrawal would knock the bottom out of American public support for the war. That is certainly what happened in Vietnam, where support for the war, in its waning years, dropped even more quickly than did American troop levels.

While the administration and the Congress are united in favor of gradual, phased withdrawal, there is no guarantee that the American people will demonstrate the patience needed to make such a policy work. Thus Bush insists, as he did Nov. 19 in Seoul, Korea, that “we will stay in the fight until we have achieved the victory that our brave troops have fought for,” even as his administration works hard to create the conditions for at least a partial withdrawal.

One point of legitimate contention between the administration and its critics relates to the issue of deadlines. Some argue that a fixed deadline for U.S. withdrawal would motivate the Iraqis to overcome their differences. Others make an equally compelling case for the opposite proposition — that a fixed deadline would motivate the insurgency and demoralize its opponents.

In evaluating these arguments, it is worth remembering that historically administrations of either party have been as resistant to such constraints as their opponents have been attracted to them. The argument on this particular point thus reflects less a difference over policy than over who should be setting it — the administration, the Congress or the critics.

Perhaps the clearest difference between the administration and its critics concerns the role of neighboring states in pacifying Iraq. The administration has consistently portrayed America's role in Iraq as the first step in a broader effort to democratize the greater Middle East. This is not a rationale with much appeal to Iraq's neighbors, whose collaboration may, nevertheless, be essential to tamping down the insurgency and rebuilding a self-reliant Iraqi state.

Critics of the administration, including Republicans of the “realist” school, argue that America's long-term aspirations for regional democracy may need to be subordinated to its short-term need to isolate, marginalize and progressively defeat the insurgency in Iraq. These critics urge that the governments of neighboring states, including regimes that most Americans would dearly like to see changed, be engaged in a dialogue over the future of Iraq.

Finger-pointing aside, the main bone of contention in the U.S. debate over Iraq is not whether or when America should begin a graduated troop withdrawal. Neither is there disagreement over the need to bring Sunnis into the political process, expedite the deployment of capable Iraqi security forces and discourage the separatist aspirations of the Kurdish community. These are all policies agreed across most of the political spectrum.

Whereas the administration appears confident that these efforts will suffice, however, its critics are more skeptical. Increasingly, those critics are arguing to involve neighboring states more methodically and constructively in this effort.

Dobbins was the Clinton administration's special envoy for Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo and the Bush administration's first envoy for Afghanistan. He is now director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corp., a nonprofit research organization.

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