The Best Thinking on How to Exit Iraq

Simplistic notions, such as "When Iraqi security forces stand up, we'll stand down," and continuing blindness about the crisis won't work anymore.
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What's the best Plan B for getting out of Iraq?

Jim Fallows, the country's most prescient journalist about the war in Iraq (see his collected articles in Blind into Baghdad) , essentially endorses the pathway for change offered by the Baker commission in a nuanced posting earlier on Huffington Post, but with his added emphasis on starting to leave now.

Right now, though, it doesn't seem that Bush will acccept either of the two key ideas: a gradual withdrawal (while shifting from combat to support) and negotiating with Iran and Syria to try to achieve a regionally-approved settlement involving Shiite and Sunni powers. (Of course, overwhelming pressure by GOP legislators in a panic about losing their jobs and the presidency in 2008 might convince him otherwise. ) Neither gradual withdrawal nor regional negotiations offers much hope for "accomplishing the mission" or "victory" as Bush has defined it, but might possibly reduce the damage of even more massive ethnic slaughter arising in the wake of a complete, immediate pullout, as George Packer of the New Yorker cautions.

Ironically, the likely Baker plan echoes some of the key points about redployment that the Center for American Progress has been making for months. Here is the Center's three-point plan:

1. Begin immediate redeployment of our forces out of Iraq while strategically repositioning our remaining forces within the country to help bring about a diplomatic solution to the ongoing civil war.

2. Set a definitive timetable for the withdrawal of all our forces within 18 months, and reiterate that the United States has no plans to maintain any permanent bases in Iraq.

3. Begin immediate diplomatic talks to gather all of Iraq's neighbors--including Syria and Iran--and all legitimate Iraqi factions around the negotiating table so that a political resolution of the civil war can be reached before mass ethnic cleansing overtakes the country.

Robert Dreyfuss, who has written a brilliant overview in The Nation of the different withdrawal options , also writes in a recent blog posting on the significance of Baker's Iraq Study Group (ISG) for laying the groundwork for an exit strategy, even if doesn't satisfy those seeking a firm timetable for withdrawal:

Created last spring as a mechanism to force President Bush to reverse course on Iraq, the ISG has succeeded in its central mission, namely, the establishment of a benchmark for a bipartisan accord--in Congress, and among the foreign policy elite--for the withdrawal of American forces in Iraq. By hammering out a consensus among its ten members, the ISG's report will create unstoppable momentum for "redeployment" of those forces. Its formal report will be released next Wednesday.

Newly empowered Democrats on Capitol Hill, bolstered by an overwhelming electoral mandate on Iraq from the November 7 antiwar vote that swept them into power, will be emboldened by the ISG to exert maximum pressure on the White House for the "phased withdrawal" plan put forward by Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Expect that to begin Tuesday, at hearings to confirm Robert Gates, a former member of the Iraq Study Group and a realist with close ties to Baker, as Secretary of Defense.

He concludes:

The ISG report is not likely to satisfy the left, the antiwar movement or others who strongly oppose the US presence in Iraq. It will apparently call for a residual US presence in Iraq of tens of thousands of US troops to train Iraqi security forces, and--contrary to what Democrats on the ISG panel wanted--its call for withdrawal of combat forces will carry no deadline, which can allow for stalling and slippage. [Note: the ISG does call for a goal of withdrawing all combat troops by early 2008.] It will take all of the efforts of antiwar forces, public opinion and Democratic elected officials to press for a faster withdrawal, and to insure that it is carried out as the inevitable crises occur.

It is, however, too late for the 600,000 Iraqis who've perished already. And there remains a real, and horrifying possibility--even a likelihood--that the carnage in Iraq will get worse. Many analysts believe that the worst-case scenario could erupt: an all-out civil war pitting Sunnis against Shiites and Arabs and Kurds in Iraq, leading to a regional conflagration that could suck in all of Iraq's neighbors even against their will. As the United States starts to exit Iraq, leaving behind the wreckage of a once-thriving and prosperous nation victimized by an American war of aggression, it will take the combined good offices of the entire world community to prevent the worst case from becoming reality. And then that world community will have to step in to rebuild Iraq from the ground up. It will be our job, here at home, to hold accountable those US politicians, pundits and government officials responsible for the deaths of so many, for nothing.

It's important to add to the most sensible, Fallows-like approaches for withdrawal key themes that could mollify powerful players in the Mideast - - publicly declaring that our country doesn't intend to have permanent bases or have special access to Iraqi oil. Here's how Rev. Jim Wallis , who gave the Democrats' radio address today, explained it in a heartfelt column:

The only moral and practical course now is to change U.S. policy, starting with an open, honest, and full national debate about one question - how to extricate U.S. forces from Iraq with the least possible damage to everyone involved - Americans, Iraqis, all their Middle Eastern neighbors, and a world longing for security. To achieve real security, we must defeat the agendas of both the terrorists and the militant neo-conservatives who seek endless war in response to terrorism. It is the neo-conservative's domination of American foreign policy that has so severely damaged our integrity around the world. We need a national debate on both how to get Americans out of Iraq and how to stabilize that devastated nation - neither of which can happen without the involvement of the international community, including Iraq's neighbors who have so much at stake in the outcome.

Everyone in Washington is now waiting for the recommendations of the Baker/Hamilton Commission, the bipartisan group authorized to come up with desperately needed new directions for U.S. policy, and whose recommendations will come in December. The Commission report will be the beginning of our needed national debate. For that debate to be successful, I believe the United States must agree to three things:

1. Reject all plans for permanent American military bases in Iraq.
2. Give up any unique claim on Iraqi oil.
3.Agree to substantially fund the re-building of Iraq without any special relationship to the contracts to do the job

That's just taking responsibility for all the horrible damage we have done. Only after we have done so can we search for the practical and honorable ways to leave Iraq while seeking to help ensure its security and the political resolution of its future. Neither "staying the course" nor "cutting and running" is morally responsible or politically practical anymore, and a new course must now be found - given the rapid deteri0ration in Iraq, as soon as possible.

We must hope and pray that President Bush will heed the voice of the people in this last election and become a key participant in the national debate of how best to get out of Iraq - how to correct the mistake of his war. The first thing he should do is to stop saying the things he again said in Estonia this week - that there really isn't a civil war in Iraq, and al Qaeda is just stirring up sectarian conflict. More denials of the realities in Iraq while merely blaming outside terrorists is as ridiculous as it is embarrassing. Stop it! Just stop it! Such statements travel around the world and make the president sound like he wasn't paying attention on November 8.

We the people, through the Congress of the United States, must have that national debate. Hopefully this debate will include the White House, but if necessary, we must have it in spite of the administration. The American people have now spoken and must now change the course of the war in Iraq. Conducting that national debate must be one of the first orders of business for the new Congress - a real debate of the sort that the Bush administration failed to allow before, but now must politically accept. George Bush says he is responsible for this war, and he is. But we are all now responsible for stopping this war.

The House and Senate must lead the national debate on the war in Iraq, and seek alternatives to the flawed and failed policies that will just continue to kill more people. The lives of many Americans and Iraqis are at stake. We cannot afford to wait two more years.

Simplistic notions, such as "When Iraqi security forces stand up, we'll stand down," and continuing blindness about the crisis won't work anymore. The Iraqi prime minister's claim that Iraqi security forces will be prepared to take over in six months is simply absurd -- unless, of course, more military aid will just strengthen the ability of uniformed Shiite death squads to slaughter more innocent Sunnis in response to sectarian violence and the insurgency. Now there's whisperings of letting the administration just back the majority Shiites, the potential winners in Iraq -- a recipe for genocide and a wider regional war.

Even the superficially appealing Peter Galbraith-Joe Biden three-state solution could lead to three weak states, a potential regional war and ethnic cleansing on a far wider scale as different religious groups flee to their sanctioned areas -- and far worse chaos and slaughter in multi-ethnic Baghdad. In an email note to me, Fallows noted some of the potential problems with this approach, while acknowledging it also reflects the growing sectarian divisions in the country:

In THEORY, partition is undesirable for these reasons:

· The oil isn't evenly distributed (none for the Sunnis), so you'd have to work that out;

· The people aren't, or weren't, neatly segmented into the three regions, so that would be a problem. On the other hand, as ethnic cleansing has speeded up, people are being pushed to their respective areas;

· This can be "regionally destabilizing," as they say, getting Turkey in a lather, and increasing Iran's influence;

· Even though Iraq was an invented state after WW I, apparently some sense of Iraqi national identity had emerged in the 90 years since then.

But in reality, this just looks like the way things are going - toward de facto partition. Therefore the challenge becomes, as with so many things in Iraq, managing the inevitable so it happens in a less-disastrous rather than most-disastrous way.

And George McGovern's proposal for an immediate, complete U.S. withdrawal is based on the illusory hope of a Muslim international peace-keeping force taking our place and the raging sectarian violence easing with the development of a chimerical "national police force."

(Of course, no meaningful progress can take place until there's some U.S. effort to crack down on the widespread contractor-abetted corruption, including oil smuggling, in Iraq that inspector general Stuart Bowen sees as a "second insurgency," costing at least $4 billion annually. It underminines any Iraqi government, either the shaky one in place or whatever's there after we start leaving, but by the time Democratic-led Congressional oversight hearings have any effect, it could be too late.)

Instead of nostrums, let's hope our leaders finally listen to common-sense and wisdom represented by thinkers such as Fallows and Wallis -- and even the bipartisan compromise represented by the Baker commission -- on Iraq after nearly four years of ideological blindness and mammoth incompetence.

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