“Precipitous” Withdrawal Defined

Former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski has never been shy about voicing his opinions. But while his comments on the current crisis in Lebanon before a small group of Washington insiders hosted by Steve Clemons and the New America Foundation has elicited some media coverage, I was most struck by his comments on Iraq.

Brzezinski was an early advocate of a relatively swift military withdrawal from Iraq. In January 2005, he laid out the choices in Iraq in stark but simple terms:

we will never achieve democracy and stability [in Iraq] without being willing to commit 500,000 troops, spend $200 billion a year, probably have a draft, and [impose higher taxes].

As a society, we are not prepared to do that….even the Soviet Union was not prepared to [take equivalent steps in Afghanistan] because there comes a point in the life of a nation when such sacrifices are not justified.

(The full transcript can be found here.)

One year later, Brzezinski made his case again, this time on the op-ed page of the Washington Post:

The real choice that needs to be faced is between:

An acceptance of the complex post-Hussein Iraqi realities through a relatively prompt military disengagement [or]

An inconclusive but prolonged military occupation lasting for years while an elusive goal is pursued.

It is doubtful, to say the least, that America’s domestic political support for such a futile effort could long be sustained by slogans about Iraq’s being “the central front in the global war on terrorism.”

In contrast, a military disengagement by the end of 2006, derived from a more realistic definition of an adequate outcome, could ensure that desisting is not tantamount to losing.

Such talk has been widely panned by the Bush administration’s defenders, who typically dismiss any talk, of any timetable – six months, one year, or ten years – as “cutting and running”.

But Brzezinski remains undeterred. During last week’s meeting he said “We [should] start talking to the Iraqis of the day of our disengagement. We say to them we want to set it jointly, but in the process, indicate to them that we will not leave precipitously.”

He then went on to say “I asked [U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay] Khalilzad what would be his definition of precipitous and he said four months.”

Four months.

Four months is tantamount to immediate. 130,000 troops cannot be extracted from any country, even under the best of conditions, in a matter of weeks. Doing so in a hostile environment requires that additional measures be taken to ensure troop safety, and this can add weeks or even months to the project. I don’t believe that U.S. troops could be safely withdrawn from Iraq over a period of less than four months, given the conditions on the ground.

However, I have long advocated (e.g. here, here, and here) that the U.S. military’s mission in Iraq be terminated in an expeditious fashion. And I’m hardly alone. Today’s New York Times reports that 56 percent of respondents in their most recent poll favor a timeline for withdrawal; and, according to the most recent Gallup/USA Today poll, 50 percent of Americans favor a troop withdrawal within the next 12 months, while only 8 percent favor sending more troops.

It may be that Khalilzad was speaking out of turn. And it is never wise to base decisions on second-hand information, even from a source as credible as Brzezinski. However, if the Bush administration defines precipitous as less than four months, then we might be onto something.

A military withdrawal from Iraq, conducted over, say, a 12-month period, would provide ample time to coordinate with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government on the handover of security responsibilities, and already enjoys support among the American public, and, increasingly, on Capitol Hill. That would hardly be “precipitous” and it certainly is better than our current open-ended policy.