No matter what happens in the Senate debate over a "no confidence" resolution it's clear the American people have lost confidence in President Bush's policies in Iraq. And little wonder: after nearly four years of struggle, which have claimed more than 3,000 lives and $400 billion, the White House is no closer to realizing its goal of a stable, democratic Iraq. On the contrary, sectarian violence now threatens to engulf the country and draw Iraq's neighbors into the conflict. The facts on the ground in Iraq have changed, but the administration's basic approach has not.
With his "surge" of U.S. conventional combat troop levels in Iraq, President Bush has persisted in his increasingly isolated quest for an ill-defined "victory" in Iraq. He says the build-up will enable U.S. commanders to wage a more effective counter-insurgency campaign by allowing them to hold territory cleared of insurgents. But hardly anyone believes 21,500 more U.S. troops will be enough to fundamentally change the correlation of forces in either Baghdad or Anbar province. More likely, the surge will put more Americans in the sectarian crossfire and postpone the day when Iraqis take responsibility for pacifying their country. And by raising expectations such a modest troop increase probably can't meet, the president may succeed only in intensifying public demands for a swift U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
But all of us who oppose the president's plan have a responsibility to define a "Plan B." For all the arguments about troop levels and withdrawal deadlines, there are really just two options. One is obvious: withdrawal of virtually all U.S. forces as quickly as possible, essentially consigning Iraq's fate to others in recognition of a war gone terribly wrong. The other, which commands potentially strong bipartisan support in Congress (and reflects the Iraq Study Group recommendations) , is to fundamentally redefine our military mission in Iraq to one of training, anti-terrorism operations, and deterrence of foreign intervention and wide-scale ethnic cleansing, while supporting internal and regional efforts to reach a political settlement of ethnic conflicts in the country.
Both these options would involve a sharp change of course in Iraq, withdrawal of most conventional combat forces, and an unmistakable shift of responsibility to Iraqis themselves. But let's be clear: the "out now" option would likely compromise U.S. security interests, trigger a full-scale civil war, invite foreign intervention, provide an unprecedented propaganda victory for Sunni Jihadists and Shi'a theocrats whose savage violence has been aimed at creating exactly this outcome, and abandon those millions of Iraqis whose suffering under Saddam Hussein will be compounded by more chaos, war and tyranny. A precipitous withdrawal would also drive the Iraqi government further into the arms of the Iranians (Who else is going to offer them arms, supplies, and training?), making Shi'a-Sunni reconciliation even harder and increasing Iran's regional influence. And it could definitely create a dangerous recruitment point and training base for the international Jihadists who remain the key global threat to our, and the world's, security interests. A rapid and complete withdrawal from Iraq isn't really a Plan B: it's a "Plan Zero" for liquidating the whole Iraq engagement as hopeless.
A real "Plan B" would look like this:
- Shifting responsibility for internal security from the U.S.-led coalition to Iraqi authorities, beginning immediately, proceeding steadily according to the ability of Iraqis to actually take charge, and aiming at the withdrawal of U.S. conventional combat forces by (as the Iraq Study Group suggested) the first quarter of 2008.
- Refocusing the remaining U.S. forces, mainly training personnel, "embeds," and special operations troops, on the more limited but sustainable missions of training Iraqi security and police forces, fighting jihadist terrorists, and preventing genocide.
- Keeping pressure on the Maliki government or its successor to make the political accommodations to bring moderate Sunnis into the post-Saddam political order.
- Launching a robust diplomatic push to build regional and international support for stabilizing Iraq.
The key to this "Plan B" is that once the U.S. mission in Iraq has changed, precise troop levels and withdrawal schedules will largely take care of themselves, without arbitrary numbers or deadlines. It's worth noting that many of the "deadline for withdrawal" plans circulating in Congress actually assume we will leave significant non-conventional-combat forces in Iraq for an extended period of time; most have loopholes for changing the withdrawal schedule as necessary. All the focus on deadlines obscures discussion of the need for a smaller, redeployed force with a crucially different but still urgent mission. Those offering plans for withdrawal of "combat troops" need to be much more explicit about the kind of U.S. troops that should remain.
A smaller force in Iraq would continue to attack al Qaeda cells and deny them a safe haven in Iraq's Sunni regions. It would backstop government forces, prevent a Rwanda-scale genocide, and keep neighboring countries from intervening. This counterterrorism force would consist largely of military trainers, special forces, intelligence and logistics. Some experts also have suggested that it help Iraqi forces guard borders.
Stabilizing Iraq isn't just an American responsibility; the region and the international community also have a huge stake in trying to resolve Iraq's civil conflict and prevent a wider conflagration. The war itself stemmed in significant part from the United Nations' failure to enforce its legitimate demands on the Saddam regime.
To gather political and financial support for an inclusive, decent Iraqi government, and ease regional tensions, the United States should call for creation of a contact group with such key actors as Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states, as well as the Arab League and Islamic Conference. The group should also launch parallel talks with Syria and Iran to test their willingness to play a constructive role in bringing peace and stability to Iraq. And we should challenge the international community to redeem its earlier pledges to help finance Iraqi reconstruction, and to seek indictments of those engaged in atrocities against civilians.
In general, our military and diplomatic operations should acknowledge the especially barbaric Sunni insurgent-Al Qaeda tactics in Iraq, which if vindicated as successful, may spread; they must be repudiated by the entire international community.
Can Plan B succeed? There are no guarantees, and it's not too early to think about a Plan C that might involve radical steps like recognizing a de facto partition of Iraq. But we are confident that Plan B strikes the right balance between the unknown but potentially enormous risks of complete failure in Iraq, and the public's strong desire to reduce the pain and losses we are already suffering there. We also know that it is an illusion to think that there are any cost-free options in Iraq.
As in so many areas of national policy, the president's attitude toward Iraq has been "my way or the highway." But there's a better way, that could not only protect our national security interests and give Iraqis a decent chance to build order from chaos, but could build a domestic bipartisan consensus among those Americans who have rejected the administration's strategy yet are still concerned about the broader struggle against Jihadist terrorism and the consequences of a complete meltdown in the Middle East.
Bush's Plan A has failed. It's time for Plan B.