Commentary

U.S. Options in Iraq: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

By Charles V. Peña
December 18, 2003

By now, it should be apparent to everyone that 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 — 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.

The U.S. military is trying to put down an insurgency fueled by Sunni Baathists who refuse to accept U.S.-imposed regime change, abetted by some Iraqis glad to be rid of Saddam Hussein but chafing under U.S. occupation, and al Qaeda-inspired jihadists taking advantage of a U.S. target in their neighborhood to practice car-bomb terrorism.

These three lethal ingredients are recipe for a U.S. disaster. It would seem that the United States has walked eyes wide shut into a combination of the Israelis in the West Bank and the Soviets in Afghanistan. It’s hard to imagine a worse situation.

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 really the least bad option. The United States needs to give up on the 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: hand the reigns of government over to the Iraqis 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 billions more of taxpayer dollars and all too many American lives. The hard truth is that the U.S. government’s first responsibility is to Americans, not to the people of Iraq.

The “bad” option is the one advocated by Arizona Sen. John McCain: pouring more U.S. soldiers into Iraq. The irony is that McCain is right when he said, “we do not have sufficient forces in Iraq to meet our military objectives.” Currently, the United States has about 130,000 troops in Iraq. The history of the British experience in Northern Ireland (a close parallel to America’s precarious position in Iraq) suggests a need for10 to 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 240,000 to 480,000 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. Further, a larger military contingent in Iraq encourages the Muslim world (regardless of their sympathies towards 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. On the one hand, the United States is trying the fast track, giving the Iraqis sovereign control by agreeing to the creation of a provisional government that will assume control July 1, 2004. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the United States apparently has no intention of leaving Iraq. To be sure, the current Pentagon plan is to reduce the force size to 105,000 troops by next spring — but that’s hardly a withdrawal of U.S. forces. According to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the troop reduction “does not mean we would physically leave the country any sooner.” And President Bush assured a group of Iraqi women at the White House “that America wasn’t leaving…. When they hear me say we’re staying, that means we’re staying.”

The current administration plan to try to have its cake and eat it too is a train wreck in the making — pinned down in Iraq and forced to adopt Israeli-style tactics, a la Operation Iron Hammer, that do more to create anti-American resentment, fuel the insurgency, and create a pool of would-be suicide bombers for al Qaeda. 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, and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, where Muslims from around the region (if not the world) flock to Iraq for jihad against the American infidel. It doesn’t get any uglier than that.

Charles V. Peña is the director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute and a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy (www.realisticforeignpolicy.org)