Commentary

Little Else U.S. Can Do in Iraq

By Andrew Bacevich
This article appeared on Ajc.com, June 29, 2004.
Resolve is not a strategy. It can, in fact, become an impediment to strategy, the urge to hunker down inducing paralysis instead of clear thinking. When it comes to Iraq, presidential resolve is masking the true strategic imperative: to initiate a prompt and orderly exit.

Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently told a Senate committee that there is “no way to militarily win in Iraq.” If Myers is correct — and he probably is — then there is no way to win, period.

From the moment U.S. forces entered Baghdad, the Bush administration has made a hash of winning the peace. The battle for Iraqi hearts and minds is all but lost. Wishing it were otherwise won’t change the facts.

Facts notwithstanding, the administration insists that the United States stay the course. Leaving Iraq now, the argument runs, would shatter U.S. credibility and embolden terrorists. In the eyes of allied leaders who have supported us, pulling out would equal betrayal. For Iraq, an abrupt U.S. departure could mean disintegration, with dire implications.

These are not trivial concerns. But simply to persevere will merely postpone such an outcome.

Fortunately, “cut and run” is not the only alternative to “hanging tough.” There is another possibility: “cut and shuffle.”

“Cut and shuffle” starts from the premise that Operation Iraqi Freedom is not some great turning point in history. The dash to Baghdad will rank not alongside Gettysburg but somewhere nearer to San Juan Hill.

Small wars yield unexceptional benefits. In Iraq, we can preserve the minor gains still within reach. That means calling it quits, not with our tails between our legs, but with deliberation, due speed and finality. Here’s how to do it:

First, aim lower. The act of demolition that liberated millions from the yoke of Baathist oppression marked the far limit of our ability to imprint freedom on Iraq.

Transforming Iraq into a liberal democracy was always a pipe dream. Therefore, the proper U.S. objective is to prevent it from becoming either Yugoslavia after Tito or Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal. A quasi-decent government that neither invades its neighbors nor provides safe haven to terrorists will suffice.

Second, install a strong leader. Iraq needs a leader who is independent, tough and untainted by mass murder and kleptomania.

Third, restore real Iraqi sovereignty. As long as foreign soldiers remain in Iraq but not under Baghdad’s control, Iraqi sovereignty will remain a charade. An Iraqi government that accepts such an arrangement cannot command legitimacy.

Therefore, the United States should announce a phased withdrawal of all coalition forces, to be completed by early 2005, giving the lie to charges that Americans will remain as permanent occupiers stealing Arab oil.

Fourth, keep the Kurds on the reservation. Iraq’s new strongman needs to share our own dedication to Iraqi territorial integrity. That includes a commitment to respecting the broad autonomy currently enjoyed by Iraqi Kurds.

In Iraq, we have completed the only mission that lies within our ability to accomplish. It’s time to bring the troops home.

Andrew Bacevich is a member of a Cato Institute task force that produced the report, “Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaida.”