Will the Election Make a Difference?

Almost surely President George W. Bush will keep the American military in Iraq until he leaves office. He will kick the war down the calendar and leave it to the incoming president. So what should the president do when he or she takes office? The president can retain the Bush policy of attempting to Iraqize the war by pushing for national reconciliation of the various religious and ethnic groups and by turning over the fighting to an Iraqi army and to an Iraqi police force. This may take a decade or more; in all probability it is impossible. The Kurds want independence and the northern oil; the southern Shi’ites want the southern oil and close alignment with Iran; the Sunnis want us out and them in. At the moment most of the police are Shi’ites beholden to various factions. The army, which, under Suddam, was run by the Sunnis, is now controlled by the Shi’ites. Settling the issue of who will control Kirkut makes Solomon’s decision on who should get the baby look easy. Sorting this out will take many years at a high cost in American lives and American treasure. In the end we may not succeed.

Alternatively the president could announce a phase down of troops over the next four years with a pull back to large fortified bases. Although this would reduce American casualties, it would not eliminate them. Nor would the current Iraqi government, which needs American troops to survive, welcome it. The purpose of keeping troops bottled up in bases in Iraq remains unclear. Perhaps it is to maintain a presence that will prevent Iran from attacking Israel or any other nearby state. But U.S. forces need not be in the Middle East to deter aggression against Israel; our long-range bombers will do that nicely. Large concentrations of our troops make wonderful targets for Iran, al-Qaeda, or other terrorist groups. Moreover, keeping a large number of American soldiers in Iraq for an extensive time will convert this war from Bush’s folly to the next president’s albatross.

The third option, the one that most politicians avoid talking about, is pulling our troops out as fast as we can do it. This would minimize the cost to the American people both of causalities and expenditures. By the time the next president takes office, we will have spent more on the Iraq war than on any other, even adjusting for inflation. More of our resources should not be thrown into that swamp, but pulling the troops out quickly has a huge political cost. As the administration has claimed, it may result in an increase in violence in Iraq as the various religious and ethnic powers fight for control over oil and land. It could, although it seems unlikely, bring into the conflict neighboring states, such as Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. The only state really likely to intervene would be Turkey, which wants to prevent an independent Kurdistan and protect its ethnic kinsmen, the Turkmen, who live in northern Iraq and around Kirkuk. Pressure from Brussels, making it clear that EU membership is not possible if Ankara attacks northern Iraq and from the U.S. and NATO might minimize its involvement in Kurdistan.

From the point of view of the next president and his or her party, however, the major cost will be the charge of "cutting and running." Americans want us out of Iraq but with honor. They cannot countenance a repeat of troops being evacuated by helicopter from the roof of an American embassy or from the grounds of the Green Zone. Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon faced this problem when they took office in the middle of an unpopular war. How do you leave? How do you get out, without looking as if you are beaten? In both Korea and Vietnam, America had an identifiable enemy. It could negotiate an end. In Korea an armistice was signed; in Vietnam, a peace treaty, which did not last long, was negotiated. No victory was achieved in either conflict, but there was no "ignoble" rout, at least initially. In Korea, we are still attempting to settle the war. In Vietnam, we got all our ground forces out before we were forced to extract our diplomatic personnel and its marine guard from the roof of the embassy as the North Vietnam troops moved into Saigon. Thirty-odd years later we have diplomatic and trade relations with Vietnam.

The only rational method of ending the Iraq debacle is for the next president, on the day that he or she is inaugurated, to issue an order to the Pentagon to bring all — I mean all — of our troops home from Iraq as soon as they can be loaded onto ships and planes for the return. The size of our establishment in the Green Zone should be reduced to the bare minimum; the huge numbers there make it clear that America is running the country. By repatriating our soldiers immediately, the president will minimize the flack and attacks by the opposition on "cutting and running." The president can then hope that, by the time of the next presidential election in 2012, the loss in Iraq will be history and he or she can run on peace and the administration’s domestic policy.

Unfortunately no major candidate in either party is running on pulling out immediately. In fact almost all of the top candidates have refused to promise to repatriate all of our personnel by the end of their first term. In both parties there are a few candidates in the second or third tier that have made it clear that they will move quickly to pull our troops back, but they have little chance of receiving their parties’ nod. The reluctance of the major players to promise to remove our troops stems from their unwillingness to appear weak; they want to avoid admitting defeat. Moreover, AIPAC — probably the most influential lobby in America — controls a great deal of money and is strongly opposed to the U.S. leaving the area. Its support in the primaries and in the election depends on candidates who promise to maintain a strong presence in the Middle East.

Even though the public, as shown by numerous polls, wants us out of Iraq, the next election will probably not achieve that end. Whoever wins will most likely maintain our participation in that tragedy, always with the promise that there is a "light at the end of the tunnel." The public will be told that, if we just hang in there, victory, whatever that means, is achievable. The new president will undoubtedly make a token drawdown of soldiers, but the U.S. will continue to occupy Iraq and to maintain a major presence in that poor country. The result will be a continuing flow of bodies coming home in caskets and of seriously maimed young men and women while the congress will be required to appropriate huge expenditures for our beleaguered forces. Restoring our good name in the world will have to wait.