In the wake of the recent crushing Democratic election victory, most pundits in Washington have been expecting the Bush administration to change course in Iraq. For those people, last week’s testimony by Gen. John Abizaid, the U.S. commander ultimately in charge of the Iraq war, was disappointing. Abizaid rejected all alternative policies for Iraq that have been proposed, including a phased withdrawal of troops, adding more troops, or partitioning the country. Yet, with verbal gymnastics that would have made George Orwell proud, when accused by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) of favoring the status quo, Abizaid denied it and suggested only marginal changes to the current approach. Apparently, “stay the course” has turned into what some call “stay and pray.”
Retired generals who have disparaged the administration’s Iraq policy have also been critical of the Democrats’ proposed phased withdrawal of U.S. troops. The generals have insisted that rather than forcing the Iraqi government to improve security and bringing the various sectarian and ethnic groups together to negotiate resource and power-sharing, a phased withdrawal would signal that the United States has given up on Iraq, thus giving the groups an incentive to start planning for a cataclysmic civil war. General John Batiste, a retired Army major general who was a division commander in Iraq and called for Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation, called the Democrats’ proposal “terribly naïve.” Among other initiatives, Batiste argues that the United States has to make new efforts to secure Iraq’s borders, weaken or eliminate the Iraqi militias, step up training of the country’s security forces, reduce Iraqi unemployment, and solicit more cooperation from tribal leaders. To do all of these things, Batiste recommends increasing the number of U.S. forces in Iraq. Gen. Anthony Zinni, one of Abizaid’s predecessors as Middle East commander and another critic of administration policy, agrees with McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) that more U.S. troops should be sent.
But if the Democratic plan is naïve, this proposal is just plain crazy. Almost as dumb as planning to invade and occupy a fractious country with too few troops and no postwar stabilization plan is throwing more troops into the quagmire when an election has just demonstrated that the war has become very unpopular at home. In a democracy, that is political suicide. In this respect, the administration may be more realistic than the aforementioned generals and senators. To fight this proposal off, Abizaid dreamed up a congressional version of Goldilocks and the three bears. McCain asked Abizaid why he didn’t support adding more troops, and Abizaid replied that they would provoke more violence. (Demonstrating Abizaid’s point, adding more U.S. forces to Baghdad has increased the violence there.) McCain then closed the rhetorical trap by noting that, by such logic, reducing U.S. troops should increase stability. Abizaid lamely countered that the number of U.S. troops was just right.
Even more naïve is Batiste’s expectation that, with more troops, the United States can miraculously wish his list of goals into being. But most of Batiste’s suggestions have already been tried and have come up short. Adding more troops will merely accelerate the top-down brand of military socialism that has already failed in Iraq. Even if more U.S. troops would help the situation, where would they come from? Independent analysts have determined that even the current level of U.S. forces in Iraq is unsustainable in the long-term.
In contrast to these Pollyanna recommendations, the Democrats are less naïve than they first appear. They realize that the Iraqis already know the United States will develop war fatigue and leave. The Iraqi groups who are fighting can read U.S. public opinion polls. The Democrats also understand that the United States has lost the war, but just can’t say it. The growing violence in Iraq is likely to get much worse, regardless of whether or not U.S. troops are there. The real question is whether we want U.S. troops to be in the middle of a full-scale civil war. Cutting our losses and withdrawing before many more young Americans are killed or wounded is the smartest course.
But what about the Iraqis who are left to deal with the chaos that the U.S. invasion and occupation has created? To give Iraqis the best chance of ending the violence and recovering from the war, a U.S. timetable for withdrawal should be combined with a formal partition of the country. At this point, Iraq is already essentially partitioned with militias providing local security in many areas. In addition, the vast majority of Iraqis don’t want to live in a unified Iraq. Only the Sunnis want a unified country because they don’t have much oil in their area. A timetable for a U.S. withdrawal would pull out the last prop under what is basically a Shi’ite/Kurdish government and encourage those groups to share oil or oil revenues with the Sunnis. In addition, a U.S. pullout would end Sunni violence against the foreign occupier.
Codifying the existing partition and decentralizing the Iraqi government would reduce the Shi’ite/Sunni violence, because each group fears that the other group would use the national government apparatus to oppress it. A perfect example is the anti-Sunni violence perpetrated by Iraqi security forces being infiltrated by Shi’ite death squads.
Thus, the Democratic proposal for withdrawal, coupled with a partition, is the best hope for Iraq.
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