Global Policy Forum

Experts: No Good Options for Iraq


By Ron Hutcheson

Knight Ridder
July 7, 2005

In the swirling debate over Iraq, all sides agree on one thing: There's no easy way out. Every approach to ending U.S. involvement carries the risk that President Bush's ambitious effort to transplant democracy will end in chaos and create an oil-rich haven for terrorists. Even the most hopeful predictions envision a fragile democracy struggling to overcome ruthless insurgents and divisive internal tensions. "There are no good options," said Christopher Preble, a national security specialist at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. "I believe that withdrawal is the least bad of the set of bad options."

Advocates of other strategies, including those who think Bush is on the right track, acknowledge risks in their choices as well. "There are going to be thousands more casualties and we're going to spend $4 billion to $8 billion a month for some time to come," said national security expert Anthony Cordesman, who backs Bush's plan but accuses the president of downplaying the human and financial toll. "It's going to take years."

The military options under discussion within the administration, in Congress and at various think tanks fall into four broad categories: rapid withdrawal, gradual withdrawal, military escalation and staying the course charted by Bush. Here are some of the pros and cons of each:

Rapid Withdrawal: Advocates of a prompt pullout say it's the fastest way to stop the loss of American life and avoid a Vietnam-style quagmire. It would also force Iraqis to take control of their destiny and silence talk that the United States has imperialist goals for Iraq. There are about 139,000 U.S. troops in Iraq today. "By withdrawing militarily from Iraq, the United States will be broadcasting to the world - in particular the Arab and Muslim worlds - that the United States has no plans to take control of Middle East oil or to otherwise impose its will on the people of the region," Preble wrote on Cato's Web site. "Such a message would seriously undermine the terrorists' tortured claims."

Former Sen. George McGovern, the Democratic nominee for president in 1972 who ran on a pledge to get U.S. troops out of Vietnam, said the debate over Iraq is a replay of that earlier controversy. "Calls to maintain the status quo echo the same rationale used to keep us in Vietnam," McGovern wrote in an opinion piece co-authored by Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. (no relation to the former senator). "We believe that the nation's standing would greatly improve if we demonstrate the judgment to terminate an unwise course."

Opponents of a rapid withdrawal say that the departure of U.S. troops would doom Iraq to chaos, with dangerous long-term consequences. "You'd have a messy civil war and almost certainly another dictator," said Cordesman, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a conservative think tank. A power vacuum in Iraq might also invite meddling by Iraq's neighbors, especially Iran and Turkey. Iran has close ties to Iraqi Shiites, and Turkey wants to stamp out any move toward Kurdish self-rule in Iraq that could stir up Turkish Kurds. Others fear the emergence of a terror state, in the mold of Afghanistan under the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. "I'm not calling for withdrawal because I think withdrawal is a panacea. It's not," Preble said. "There are a lot of risks. I just think the risks are less."

Gradual Withdrawal: Plans for a gradual withdrawal generally include a loose timetable for removing U.S. troops without any firm deadline. The goal is to get the political benefits from withdrawal while minimizing the risks from leaving too soon. Proponents contend that declaring an intention to leave would undercut the insurgency, increase pressure on Iraqis to take responsibility for their affairs and reassure Americans that the end is in sight. "By keeping our troops in Iraq indefinitely, we're asking them to resolve political and social issues that need to be resolved by Iraqis themselves. That's unfair to the troops, their families and the country," said Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, who joined a bipartisan group of lawmakers sponsoring legislation that calls for withdrawal starting in October 2006.

The proposed start date is intended to give Iraqi security forces plenty of time to prepare for the handoff. "If they can't do it by then," Abercrombie said, "we have to acknowledge that we'll be mired there for a very, very long time." Others have proposed variations on the idea. Michael O'Hanlon, a national security specialist at the Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank, has suggested reducing the American presence to fewer than 40,000 troops over 18 months to two years. Steven Clemons, a foreign policy expert at the New America Foundation, a centrist policy-research center, says Bush could announce his intention to pull out, without setting a timetable, as leverage to get European countries and Iraq's Muslim neighbors involved in the reconstruction effort.

Bush adamantly opposes any withdrawal deadline. "Setting an artificial timetable would send the wrong message to the Iraqis, who need to know that America will not leave before the job is done. It would send the wrong message to our troops, who need to know that we are serious about completing the mission. ... And it would send the wrong message to the enemy, who would know that all they have to do is wait us out," he said in a nationally televised June 28 speech. Cordesman, a stay-the-course advocate, questioned whether a timetable would offer any additional incentive for Iraqi security forces. "They're already being pushed as hard as they can," he said.

More Troops: A military escalation in Iraq may be a tough sell politically, but it's not a new idea. Weeks before the war's start, Army Gen. Eric Shinseki told a congressional committee that pacifying Iraq would require "several hundred thousand" troops. His remarks angered Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who publicly rebuked him, but some members of Congress think Shinseki was right. In their view, the stakes in Iraq demand an all-out commitment. "I've always believed we need more troops," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "I think it's one of the major reasons we've had so much difficulty."

Escalation advocates say commanders in Iraq need more troops to stop the infiltration of foreign jihadists and to secure areas that have been temporarily cleared of insurgents. "I continue to be worried about whether at this moment we have enough troops. ... They take a city, but they don't have enough people to leave either our own coalition forces or the Iraqi security forces to secure it. Then the insurgents, the terrorists, come back," Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., said at Senate hearing last month.

But sending more troops may not be a realistic option because the military is already stretched thin. Nearly half of the troops in Iraq are from National Guard and reserve units, and some soldiers are on their third tour of duty. Military recruiters are having a tough time meeting their recruitment goals for the all-volunteer force. Former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski said the government would probably have to revive the draft to come up with the 500,000 troops that he estimates it would take to secure Iraq. Bush and Rumsfeld have ruled out that option.

To give the Pentagon more flexibility, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., have co-sponsored legislation that would increase the overall troop strength of the volunteer military. The Army would get 30,000 additional soldiers, for a total of 532,800; the Marine Corps would get 5,000 more Marines, for a total of 183,000. Bush says escalation would send the wrong signal to Iraqi security forces and the insurgents. "Sending more Americans would undermine our strategy of encouraging Iraqis to take the lead in this fight," Bush said. "And sending more Americans would suggest that we intend to stay forever." Other opponents said more troops wouldn't make much difference because defeating the insurgents is as much a political problem as a military one.

Stay the Course: Bush and his supporters point to signs of progress in Iraq as evidence that the operation is on track. The Iraqi elections in January succeeded beyond expectations, with more than 8 million Iraqis voting. Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al Jafaari says he's confident that a new constitution will be ready by the Aug. 15 target date, paving the way for ratification in October and new national elections in December. Despite their best efforts, insurgents and terrorists have failed to provoke a civil war between rival Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Sunnis are playing a greater role in the political process, encouraging hopes that they'll turn against the insurgency. On the security front, U.S. military commanders say they've trained 169,000 Iraqi security forces. (They refuse to say how many of them are ready to fight on their own, though, and independent estimates range from only 2,500 to 40,000. Cordesman, who supports Bush's approach, conceded that Iraqi forces "have major problems with leadership, desertions and effectiveness.")

Administration officials say the only missing ingredients now are time and patience. "Iraq slowly gets better every day," Gen. George Casey, the top commander in Iraq, told a Senate committee last month. "I am more convinced than ever that our mission there is both realistic and achievable."

Many of Bush's Democratic critics have proposed alternatives that are little more than variations of the president's approach. Most call for more international help, but other countries have shown no interest in sending troops to Iraq. Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., says Bush should seek the deployment of a 3,000- to 5,000-member NATO force along the Iraq-Syria border and prod other countries to train Iraqi security forces outside Iraq. The tactical details differ from Bush's, but the strategy is basically the same - fight the insurgents, train Iraqis to take over and help Iraqis develop democratic institutions.

While Bush can point to signs of progress, his critics can find plenty of evidence that Iraq is heading in the wrong direction. Foreign extremists continue to pour into the country, the insurgency is as strong as ever and the death toll continues to mount. Iraq's economy is in a shambles. Unemployment for young men is estimated at 40 percent in Sunni areas, annual per capita income dropped from $137 in 2003 to $77 last year, electricity remains sporadic and only about 37 percent of Iraqi families are connected to a sewage network, down from 75 percent in the 1980s.

While opinions are splintered over how to proceed in Iraq, there's widespread agreement that a victory for the insurgents would be a big blow to American credibility and a boost for the morale of Islamic extremists. No one seems to expect the emergence of a stable, secure American-style democracy anytime soon. "We can't afford to lose, but we don't know what we're going to win," Reed, the Rhode Island senator, said. "It might be very little."

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