One day late in the Vietnam war, a Senator called his defense staffer into his office. Like too many Senators (though neither of the two I worked for), the distinguished legislator depended entirely upon his staff but treated them like peons. Although the end of the day had come and gone, the Senator snarled at his hapless staffer, "I want to give a speech on the Floor tomorrow morning on the Vietnam war. You can stay here tonight and write it."
The next morning, the Senator found the text of his speech on his desk, neatly typed and bound. Without bothering to look it over, he took it to the Floor of the Senate where, with the voice if not the mind of Cicero, he shared it with the world. About half way through, he read a page that concluded with the words, "I will now offer my five-point plan for ending the Vietnam war." Turning the page, he found an unexpected message from his despised staffer: "You’re on your own now, you SOB. I quit."
Like the Senator, I think it is time I offered my own exit strategy for Iraq. Everyone in Washington except those in the Bushbunker knows we need an exit strategy; few have offered one. While I have had a bit more time to consider my proposal than did the Senator in the story (which was current during my early days on Senate staff), I am sure my proposal will have holes in it. Nonetheless, it may help move the discussion along, from whether to get out of Iraq to how to get out.
Please note that I am not talking about how to win the Iraq war. The war was lost from before the first bomb fell, because the strategic objectives were never attainable no matter what we did. Further blunders, from de-Baathification and sending the Iraqi Army home through mistreating the civilian population, have moved us from mere failure to incipient disaster. The question, rather, is how we might get out without our defeat being so obvious as to be undeniable.
So here is my proposal:
First, announce that we will leave Iraq soon, and completely. Not one American base or soldier will remain on Iraqi soil. The spin should be, "We came only to remove Saddam from power, and we have accomplished that mission. Iraq now has a constitution and an elected government; we have no reason to remain."
Second, open negotiations to set a date by which we will be gone. The formal negotiations will be with the Iraqi government. Behind the scenes, we will have to set a deadline for achieving an agreement, failing which we will announce a withdrawal unilaterally. Governments established by foreign powers may be reluctant to see foreign troops leave.
The critical (and secret) negotiations, however, will not be with Iraq’s puppet government, but with the Sunnis. Here, what we need is what is sometimes called a "diplomatic revolution." Instead of siding with the Kurds and Shi’ites against the Sunnis, we need to offer the Sunnis an alliance. The terms would be roughly these:
1) We will set and adhere to a date for complete withdrawal;
2) We will cease all attacks on the Sunni resistance, as part of a mutual cease-fire; and
3) We will use such political influence as we retain with Iraq’s Shi’ite-Kurdish condominium to protect and advance the Sunnis’ interests.
In return, the Sunnis will:
1) Enforce a cease-fire in the Sunni provinces, and
2) Clean up al-Qaeda in Iraq. If they need and want our help to do that, we will help. I doubt they will need any assistance from us, beyond stopping our attacks in Sunni areas, and I doubt even more they will want it, since it would de-legitimize them.
Third, while we will cease our useless "sweeps" and other clearly offensive actions, we will also quietly institute the "ink-blot strategy" in some mixed Sunni-Shi’ite-Kurdish areas. While the ink-blot strategy (like the CAP program in Vietnam) represents a strategic offensive, which allows us to keep pressure on the Sunnis to make a deal, it requires de-escalation on the tactical level, so as not to alienate the local population. That should help reduce both Sunni and American casualties while negotiations proceed.
As I have noted in previous columns, a problem in Fourth Generation conflicts is finding someone with whom to negotiate, someone who can deliver once a deal is made. Here, events in Iraq may have given us an opportunity. According to the October 27 Christian Science Monitor, Iraq’s key Sunni political parties have formed a new coalition. That coalition is, to quote the Monitor, "Islamist, vehemently anti-American, opposed to foreign troops, and discreetly pro-insurgency." I think it is safe to add that it is closely tied to the Ba’athist elements of the insurgency, which are both a large part of the resistance and strongly opposed to al-Qaeda.
All those characteristics make it a credible negotiating partner. Negotiations with Sunni Quislings serve no purpose, because the Quislings can’t deliver what we need, a quieting down of the fighting while we get out. There is good reason to think the new Sunni coalition could deliver that. In turn, we could deliver what they need, which is political support vis-à-vis the Shi’ites and Kurds.
Could it work? Maybe; in such business, there are no guarantees. Would the new Sunni coalition talk with us about a deal along these lines? It’s worth a try. Would the Bush administration make such an attempt? Aye, there’s the rub. The Bushbunker may be so detached from reality that it still thinks we can win this war militarily.
If that is the case, then it is time for America’s senior military leaders, the chief and members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to have a little talk with the president. Another Vietnam war story, a true one, is how the JCS failed to give President Johnson the advice he needed though did not want, namely that the military had done all that it could and it was time to seek a political solution.
So that’s my exit strategy. If someone else comes up with a better one, I will be happy to defer to it. But the time is past for arguing whether we need an exit strategy; the discussion should be about what that strategy might be. "Staying the course" in a lost war is not a strategy at all; it is merely a recipe for disaster.