An Early Exit from Iraq?

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The distinction between what politicians say on the campaign trail and what they really believe is well illustrated by the current Kerry-Bush skirmishing on Iraq: If either man really believes some of the things he's saying, we're in worse shape than we know. For President Bush to seriously maintain that he has set Iraq on a steady course towards freedom and tranquil prosperity — or made it, to quote the talking points provided by his reelection web site "an example of reform to the region" —he'd have to be ignoring his government's own National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq. If Senator Kerry expects Americans do believe his promise that he'd remedy the malaise with an infusion of troops sent by suddenly-willing foreign governments, he's showing what could only be called a Cheney-esque willingness to play the American electorate for fools when it comes to Iraq.

Each man speaks more accurately, perhaps, in pointing out the weaknesses of the other's case. Kerry has finally begun to articulate what many in the intelligence community, the military, and even the Republican Party's foreign policy establishment have been saying for quite some time — that the occupation of Iraq has created more problems for U.S. national security than it has solved, and has left America more vulnerable rather than safer. That view echoes the consensus of mostly Republican national security professionals interviewed by James Fallows in the current issue of the Atlantic Monthly. It also appeared to coincide with a barrage of criticism by Senate Republicans of the administration's handling of Iraq, echoing many of Kerry's points and even, in the case of Indiana's Republican Senator Richard Lugar, questioning the administration's competence.

But go beyond the critique to Kerry's plan for fixing Iraq, and you find the following: "First, the president must secure international support. Second, we must commit to a serious effort to train Iraqi security forces. Third, we must carry out a reconstruction plan that brings benefits to the Iraqi people, and fourth, we must take the necessary steps to hold elections next year." It's not hard for President Bush to retort that Kerry is simply demanding something the Bush administration is already trying to do.

President Bush likes to taunt that if John Kerry had been president, Saddam Hussein would still be in power. Kerry advocates counter that keeping Saddam contained would have allowed the U.S. to make far more headway in its battle against al-Qaeda, which Operation Iraqi Freedom has not only detracted from, but has also made considerably more difficult. (Rather late in the game, Kerry surrogates have begun to point out that Saddam Hussein did not rank even in the top three national security threats to the United States at the time of the invasion, but occupying Iraq has weakened U.S. ability to confront more serious challenges such the nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, and the continued growth of al-Qaeda.)

Election-season posturing aside, however, there are signs of a new pragmatism on both sides over how the U.S. exit from Iraq might be managed. While Bush scores points off Kerry's vow to bring the troops back home within his first term — sends the wrong message to the enemy, says the President — conservative columnist Robert Novak claims administration sources have told him the Bush administration plans to withdraw from Iraq next year. (This being the same Robert Novak through whom senior administration officials allegedly named Valerie Plame, the wife of Ambassador Joseph Wilson of Niger uranium probe fame, as a CIA agent.) Novak says his administration sources tell him that Iraq's election, scheduled for January, will be used as a pretext for withdrawing, even though the insurgency will still be raging and civil war will result. While some of what Novak's sources have told him sounds farfetched, there's a soundness to his overall point about an early departure, and a retreat from the neo-conservative dream about remaking the Middle East to American specification.

Already, the U.S. focus in Iraq has shifted to crisis-management — as the National Intelligence Estimate suggests, the best hope right now is maintaining something close to the present unstable, but not decisively so, equilibrium. In what respected strategic analyst Anthony Cordesman describes as an admission of policy failure, the Bush administration this week began reallocating some of the $18 billion earmarked for long-term reconstruction of Iraq to immediate security priorities. That's in pursuit of a strategy based on turning most of the responsibility for day-to-day security in Iraq over to newly-minted Iraqi forces, and establishing the legitimacy of the U.S.-appointed government of Iyad Allawi by holding elections on schedule. But it's far from clear, thus far, that Iraqi forces will be up to the job or that Allawi will survive an election. It's not even certain that the Iraqi election will go ahead on schedule, given the current level of violence. In the three weeks of September alone, more than 500 Iraqis and some 59 U.S. troops have been killed, and the UN has made clear that it could not certify that a "credible" election could be held under these circumstances. That leaves the U.S. to either launch an offensive to retake Sunni towns form the insurgents in the brief window of opportunity between the U.S. election and the scheduled Iraqi one — and risk a backlash that could imperil the prospects of political survival for the government it has appointed — or else delay the election or allow it to proceed on flawed lines.

But if, as Novak suggests, the broad objective has become an exit strategy and Washington is intimately aware of the danger of civil war, then presumably it knows better than to rely for stability only on the unknown quantity that is the Iraqi security forces. That's why reports of discreet talks between the U.S. and Syria in pursuit of cooperation on securing Iraq's borders may portend a new U.S. effort to stabilize Iraq on the basis of political and security agreements with its neighbors. The chances of avoiding a civil war, and achieving some form of stability, will be greatly enhanced if a new political arrangement in Baghdad carries the backing of Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iran. The U.S. sought, and achieved an equivalent agreement in Afghanistan, whose neighbors include Iran. And while it continues to berate Tehran as a member of President Bush's "Axis of Evil" and tighten sanctions on Syria as a "state sponsor of terrorism," there's a certain inevitability to the search for back-channel diplomatic agreements. Regional cooperation on Iraq — pursued, at least in the case of Syria, by the Bush administration, and also championed by the Kerry campaign — may be Washington's best hope of withdrawing. Cutting deals with some of the regimes the neocons love to hate would not only signal a quiet surrender on the plan to make Iraq a beachhead for the U.S. export of democracy to the Middle East; it would actually leave some of those very same regimes in an even stronger position due to Washington's newfound dependence on them for Iraqi stability. That was never the desired effect, but it may nonetheless prove to be an unintended consequence. After all, despite the partisan disciplinary requirements of an election season, there suddenly appear to be a lot of Republicans publicly suggesting the U.S. has bitten off more than it can chew in Iraq.