The Good, the Bad,
and the Ugly

Three years into Operation Iraqi Freedom one thing should be apparent: Iraq was not a cakewalk. Maybe the fight against the Iraqi military on the open battlefield was a cakewalk, but everything since President Bush declared an end to major combat operations on May 1, 2003 – taking a victory lap by landing aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in full flight garb and with a banner declaring "mission accomplished" – has been anything but. And it should be clear that resolving the current situation will also not be a cakewalk. According to President Bush, "Our job is to make sure civil war doesn’t happen [in Iraq]." Although he admits to "sectarian violence," he believes "that the Iraqis took a look and decided not to go to civil war." Former Iraqi interim prime minister Iyad Allawi believes otherwise: "If this is not civil war, then God knows what civil war is."

So what’s a superpower to do? The United States basically has three options: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The "good" option is probably better described as the least bad option. The administration needs to give up on its neoconservative-inspired Woodrow Wilson fantasy of creating a democracy in Iraq. Instead, the United States must be realistic, make the best of an admittedly bad situation, and do what’s in the best interest of U.S. national security: stop trying to force Iraqis to create the unity government we want them to have and fashion an expeditious military exit. This would not be "cutting and running," but simply cutting U.S. losses before Iraq becomes a sinkhole that swallows hundreds of billions more of taxpayer dollars (the cost of the Iraq war is now over $200 billion and one estimate is that it might cost $1 trillion) and all too many American lives. As noble and well-intentioned as wanting to create a democracy and better the Iraqi people’s lives is, the hard truth is that the U.S. government’s first responsibility is to Americans, not the people of Iraq. And U.S. national security demands only that whatever government is formed in Iraq – even an Islamic government – does not harbor or support terrorists who would do harm to the United States.

The "bad" option is the one previously advocated by Senators John McCain and Joe Biden: pouring more troops into Iraq (although Biden now advocates pulling U.S. troops out this summer if the Iraqis cannot form a stable government). The irony is that McCain was right when he said that "we do not have sufficient forces in Iraq to meet our military objectives." Currently, the United States has about 130,000 troops in Iraq (of which, only about 56,000 are actually combat troops and only half of them are on duty at any given time – so there are really only about 28,000 troops on duty trying to provide security for a nation the size of California and with a population of 25 million). The history of the British experience in Northern Ireland (a close parallel to America’s precarious position in Iraq) suggests a need for as many as 20 soldiers per 1,000 civilian population to have any realistic hope of restoring security and stability. In Iraq, that translates to a force of 500,000 troops. But the paradox of a larger force is that it would only make the problem worse – confirming that the United States is an occupying power and increasing Iraqi resentment and resistance among the general population. Worse yet, a larger military contingent in Iraq removes any shred of doubt from the case made by the radical Islamists that the West is invading Islam, which only encourages the Muslim world (regardless of their sympathies toward al-Qaeda) to unite against the United States.

The "ugly" option is the course the Bush administration seems to be charting, which is a faux exit. President Bush has consistently stated that "as Iraqis stand up, we will stand down." On Meet The Press on Sunday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Tim Russert: "Iraqi forces are getting better, American forces are ceding territory, and I think it’s entirely probable that we will see a significant draw-down of American forces over the next, next year." But this seems more like wishful thinking meant to appease an American public growing weary of the Iraq war – according to a mid-March NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 61 percent disapproved of the Bush’s handling of the situation in Iraq, 51 percent did not think removing Saddam Hussein from power was worth it, 57 percent were not confident that the Iraq war would end successfully, and 61 percent thought U.S. troop levels in Iraq should be reduced (but only 30 percent favored an immediate withdrawal). And if U.S. withdrawal is conditional on a more capable Iraqi force, the Pentagon reporting at the end of February that the one Iraqi battalion previously capable of fighting without U.S. support had been downgraded can hardly be called progress in the right direction. Indeed, President Bush last week said that U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would "be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq." So it would seem that United States has no intention of leaving Iraq anytime soon.

The current administration plan (if you can call it that) is a train wreck in the making. It is the worst of all worlds – a combination of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, where military action to suppress the insurgency creates more new terrorists and an endless cycle of violence; the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, where Muslims from around the region (if not the world) flock to Iraq for jihad against the American infidel; and our own experience in Lebanon in the 1980s, when U.S. forces got caught in the crossfire of a civil war. It doesn’t get any uglier than that.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.