The Phony Argument Against an Iraq Timetable

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Now it can be revealed: the Iraq Study Group will recommend a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Sort of. According to leaks of its expected findings, the Baker-Hamilton commission plans to call for a "pullback" of as many as 75,000 troops from the front lines. To those who believe that the only sensible option left in Iraq is for the U.S. to begin the process of extricating itself, the Baker group's proposal would seem to provide some reason for optimism. But before those people get too excited, they should read the fine print. The Baker plan reportedly doesn't specify whether those troops should actually be pulled out of the country, or simply redeployed to bases on the periphery; nor does it provide any indication of when, or even whether, the remaining 70,000 U.S. troops would be pulled out — though the Washington Post reports the panel hopes that most would leave by 2008. It appears likely that the Baker group will avoid making the one clear and tangible proposal that could still turn the situation around in Iraq: setting a timetable for a U.S. pullout.

Democrats on the commission pushed for a deadline, arguing that only the unequivocal reality of a U.S. withdrawal would compel the Iraqi government to get its house in order and crack down on the militias and death squads tearing the country apart. But Baker reportedly opposed that proposal, stressing, among other factors, a common refrain of President Bush's: as David Sanger summed it up in The New York Times, "any firm deadline would be an invitation to insurgents and sectarian groups to bide their time until the last Americans were withdrawn, then seek to overthrow the government." And so the timetable idea was dropped.

But let's examine the Administration's and Baker's anti-timetable argument more closely. As the thinking goes, the armed groups sowing mayhem in Iraq will lay down their guns as soon as the U.S. fixes a date for withdrawal. Since any reasonable timetable for withdrawal would still preserve some kind of U.S. troop presence for the foreseeable future, Baker and Bush would have you believe that tens of thousands of insurgents, terrorists and militia members are prepared to contain their furies for months, if not years — after which time they will presumably emerge tanned, rested and more bloodthirsty than ever. It's a preposterous notion, since it also presumes that U.S. forces would decide to observe some kind of cease-fire as well. Baker knows as well as anyone that U.S. forces will be carrying out combat operations right up until the day they leave Iraq — and almost surely for years after that. The insurgents may try to "bide their time," but it's highly unlikely the U.S. military would afford them that luxury.

But for the sake of argument, let's say that the Baker-Bush position is right: the U.S. sets a timetable for withdrawal, and a prolonged lull in violence follows. Is any reasonable person prepared to argue that this would be a bad thing? If anything, a pause in fighting would pose a greater threat to the long-term prospects of the insurgents and militias than it would to the government. The combatants in the civil war feed off the fears of ordinary Iraqis, who look to the armed groups for protection against their sectarian rivals. If the violence were to suddenly stop, the influence of those groups would plummet. And that would give the U.S. and Iraq's Arab neighbors the opportunity to flood the country with reconstruction aid and stand up an army ready to defend a government in Baghdad. By the time the U.S. left and the bad guys were ready to fight again, they would have lost their ability to dictate the terms of the battle.

The reality, of course, is that neither scenario is likely. Fixing a timeline for withdrawal isn't going to usher in a prelapsarian period of tranquility any more than it will make the violence worse. The presence of U.S. forces will have no impact on whether Iraq goes to war with itself, because it already has. If the U.S. declares that it plans to leave Iraq, it's safe to assume that almost nothing will change. The war will continue and more people will die. Setting a deadline would at least ensure that no more Americans will.