How to get out of Iraq
Special to the Appeal
Although President Bush continues to talk tough on Iraq – while dropping that silly “stay the course” mantra – it’s now obvious that he’s seeking a face-saving exit strategy that will bring U.S. troops home from that badly fractured, war-torn country sooner rather than later.
In fact, we can expect some sort of phased withdrawal of American troops from Iraq to begin shortly after the so-called “Baker Commission” reports to the president next month. The bipartisan commission, officially known as the Iraq Study Group, is headed by former Secretary of State James Baker, who served under Bush’s father, as did Secretary of Defense-designate Robert Gates, also a member of the Study Group. From my vantage point, it appears that the Bush Sr. team has been called in to rescue Bush Jr. from a foreign policy disaster that cost Republicans control of Congress earlier this month.
After President Bush met with Baker and other members of the study group last Monday, journalists reported that “Democrats began coalescing around a plan to start withdrawing U.S. troops by next summer.” For his part, the president said he was “impressed by the questions they asked,” and added, “They want us to succeed in Iraq just like I want us to succeed.” Well, as Bill Clinton might say, It all depends upon what you mean by “succeed.”
The way I see it, the Baker Commission will give the president the political cover he needs to begin a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2007. That’s exactly what he must do in the wake of a GOP mid-term election debacle that proved conclusively the voting public has lost patience with the president’s stubborn “stay the course” strategy in Iraq, where nearly 3,000 Americans have died – just about the same number who perished in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The question is how to begin a phased withdrawal without conceding defeat in Iraq and turning the country over to international terrorists. Because we can’t just declare victory and leave, Bush will rely heavily on the Baker Commission’s recommendations. Although no one yet knows what those will be, perhaps we can glean some clues by examining recent analyses of the Iraq problem by Mideast policy experts, some with close ties to the Bush White House.
One of those experts is Ambassador Dennis Ross, a career diplomat and Middle East specialist who has worked for both Democratic and Republican administrations. Writing in the Washington Post late last month, Ross presented the following three-point plan for U.S. disengagement from Iraq:
• “It’s time for the Bush administration to insist that a national reconciliation conference be convened and not be disbanded until agreement is reached on amendments to the (Iraqi) constitution” to resolve festering disputes between the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds.
• A long-discussed regional conference with all of Iraq’s neighbors (including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Turkey) should be held with the aim of preventing an all-out civil war in Iraq, which everyone wants to avoid.
• And President Bush should inform Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki that although we won’t impose a deadline for a U.S. pullout, we plan to negotiate a timetable for the withdrawal of our troops. Ross added that “the difference between a deadline and an agreed timetable is the difference between leaving the Iraqis in the lurch and informing them that they must assume their responsibilities.” Amen!
That’s a reasonable strategy because it would counter “cut and run” charges from the far right and give the embattled Iraqi government an opportunity to get its act together while indicating that the U.S. commitment is no longer open-ended – a commitment the American people will no longer tolerate.
“Clearly, there should be a relationship between the effort to finally produce national reconciliation and our approach to working out a timetable … for withdrawal,” Ambassador Ross concluded. And if the Iraqis are unable to resolve differences among themselves, the U.S. would simply speed-up its timetable for withdrawal.
Hopefully, the replacement of outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld by former CIA Director Gates is evidence that Bush and the neoconservative ideologues who convinced him to go to war in Iraq have learned some valuable lessons from our costly (in lives and dollars) military misadventure in Iraq.
But have they really learned anything? Bush kept the Pentagon in charge of Iraq policy for far too long and ignored sound advice from the State Department regarding reconstruction, democracy-building and civil affairs. As Washington Post foreign affairs columnist Jim Hoagland wrote, “The extent to which U.S. forces were unprepared for insurgency and sectarian warfare in Iraq has become painfully apparent. The lessons they are learning … must never again be forgotten.” Never again!
• Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, is a retired U.S. diplomat who served on a Mideast task force in Washington during the first Gulf War in 1990-91.