Wealth of Nations January 2007

No Easy Exit From Iraq

"Bad as the situation in Iraq may be, a precipitate retreat would make things worse"

The president's plan to send a "surge" of troops into Iraq seems a clear instance of too little, too late. Two years ago, or better still from the start of the war, an open-ended commitment of many extra soldiers—certainly many more than envisaged for the new surge—would have done some good. (Whether it would have been enough to deliver success is another question.) But the situation has worsened dramatically since then. Supposing this modest and apparently temporary increase in forces happens, any improvement in security is likely, under current circumstances, to be brief.

To criticize the plan in this way may be too kind. It takes the proposal at face value. The new policy may, in fact, be an instance of something more squalid—a further expense of American lives in an effort not to secure "victory" (who any longer believes that that is possible?) but merely to buy political cover. Perhaps the White House is calculating that Democrats in Congress will find a way to block the new deployment, allowing President Bush, if he has the gall, to blame them for the steadily worsening failure on the ground. Perhaps the surge is intended to make it easier for the White House to blame the Iraqis if the situation fails to improve: "We tried everything, but they refused to be helped." Or perhaps, as some reports indicate, the new plan was simply a matter of coming up with something, anything, that was different from the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, which reported in December. If so, additional lives stand to be sacrificed to little more than vanity.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the damage done by this war—and I say that with deepest regret, as somebody who advocated it. There is no easy exit. Much as one may wish that the war had never been started, it was started and that decision cannot be undone. The fact that the skeptics of 2003 have been vindicated does not mean that they are right to argue, as many of them do, that the best course now is the speediest possible withdrawal of American forces. That too would be a mistake. A too-rapid withdrawal, according to a preannounced schedule, with or without an intervening "surge," would be terribly dangerous.

Bad as the situation in Iraq may be, a precipitate retreat would make things worse, and maybe much worse. To be sure, it is an appalling thing to put American soldiers' lives at risk in such an uncertain and unpromising venture. But an unrestrained sectarian conflagration in Iraq—something that could still happen—would be a far worse outcome than anything seen so far, would gravely set back American interests, and would rest heavily on the country's conscience for years. It might even (as the Iraq Study Group pointed out) suck America back in.

So what is the answer? What is the least of the available evils? On the key question, the Iraq Study Group says that America's combat forces "could be out of Iraq" by early next year—without explicitly saying that they should be—leaving only 20,000 soldiers or so attached to Iraqi units as trainers, plus a further number of Special Forces (to be deployed against Al Qaeda and other American enemies, not as part of the effort to stabilize the country). The group said that the Iraqi government needs to make faster progress in approaching a variety of reconciliation "milestones"—in other words, that it should try harder to convince the minority Sunnis that their interests will not be trampled. If it fails, American military and economic support should be rolled back. The group's report also called for the U.S. to undertake new diplomatic initiatives directed at Syria and Iran, which have big stakes in the Iraqi conflict, and on Israel-Palestine.

The Iraq Study Group's report rightly expresses concern about the dire consequences of a too-rapid withdrawal. But isn't an almost-total withdrawal of combat forces within barely a year "precipitate"? And the report seems to envisage this outcome regardless of what the Iraqis do. If good progress is made on reconciliation, the violence will subside and American troops can be pulled out. Otherwise, the violence will not subside—and American troops will be pulled out. Where is the incentive in this for the majority Shiites to come to an accommodation with the Sunnis? And where, if America is leaving come what may, is its leverage over Iraq's internal politics?

Even now, the best course, in my view, would be a much bigger commitment of extra forces, of the kind that Sen. John McCain has advocated from the beginning, together with an undertaking that they would remain until security had been re-established. I believe this would offer the best chance of retrieving something—less than "success," to be sure, but more than the abject, disgraceful, and debilitating failure in prospect—from this mess. But I readily concede that, as the Iraq Study Group report said, this option is politically unsustainable. Americans voted against the war in November. The administration is discredited and commands no trust. The electorate regards it, with reason, as dishonest and incompetent. To put it mildly, that narrows the options.

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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