Plan of Retreat

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Starting today, and continuing right through mid-December, Washington is going to bring forth a series of plans for executing what a lot of people would like to think is going to be an orderly transition and withdrawal from Iraq. On paper, many of these will look and sound perfectly logical. But nothing about Iraq goes according to plan, and there's little reason to think the exit will be any more "plan-able" than the war itself has been.

Yes, it's true that the political stage is now set for the most unexpected course correction in U.S. foreign policy in decades: voters have all but screamed their dissatisfaction with the management of the Iraqi adventure; Donald Rumsfeld has been given his orders; the President has announced a government-wide review of Iraq policy; Henry Kissinger, a man who has some experience with ill-conceived military operations, has declared Iraq a failure; Tom Ricks, the Washington Post's peerless Pentagon reporter, this morning disclosed the Joint Chiefs' three-option approach for what to do next (no big surprises there: stay put, add troops, get out); and in a few weeks, the commission headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Indiana Democrat Lee Hamilton, will brief the President and then the public on its findings.

But today's alignment of stars hardly means things will move quickly. It will take weeks, and more likely months, for the White House and Congress to sift through the commission's findings and get to the same place. Congress will push for the full range of the group's proposals: starting up a regional security group; a restart of the Middle East peace talks; some basket of carrots and sticks on Baghdad. And the White House will have its own internal fight between those who want to get on board this train and the "we-get-to-decide-these-things" crowd that resists outside authority of any kind. My bet is that Vice President Dick Cheney hasn't fought his last battle just yet.

Not that either side has much latitude here anyway. In a pair of hearings last Wednesday that seemed to produce little news, CENTCOM boss Gen. John Abizaid made it remarkably clear that he didn't see any good options. He said that he didn't want to add more troops (except to train Iraqis) because the Maliki government would never take responsibility for security if he did. But he doesn't want to draw forces down either. Why? He said that none — as in zero — of the nearly 100 already trained Iraqi army units were ready to operate independent of U.S. forces. And he said it would be another 12 to 18 months before they were. And those are Iraqi months — which means it might be twice or three times that long.

Which brings up the most important thing to keep in mind. Washington is going to come up with a plan for departure — as if the plan is all that matters. But it may turn out that the plan is the thing that matters least.

We Americans are wonderfully confident about things — about ourselves, our kids, about our plans; I sometimes think it's our greatest asset. But it can also be our greatest weakness. That confidence was one of the things that helped fool many of us into thinking we could march into Iraq and make everything swell. It could now fool us into thinking that it's going to be relatively easy to get out. Coming or going, our storied confidence blinds us to all kinds of problems we can't see or imagine. And Iraq, more than most places, is full of those kinds of things.

So bring on the plans. But remember this: There is no reason to think that the exit is going to go according to plan any more than the entrance did.