How Long To "Stay The Course" In Iraq?

Approval for the Bush Administration's open-ended commitment is eroding

How long will America's commitment to its Iraq mission last? In the year since the U.S. invasion, that question has received little scrutiny. For Republicans and most Democrats, the mantra has been simple: "Stay the course." With Saddam Hussein in jail and Iraq's potential as a haven for weapons of mass destruction neutralized, both parties willingly backed an open-ended troop commitment to install a stable, democratic government in Baghdad and, in Bush Administration dreams, throughout the Islamic world.

Now that consensus is cracking. While White House and Pentagon officials show no sign of wavering, lawmakers and foreign policy experts are starting to debate whether the Bush team's poorly managed war effort can achieve its goals -- or whether those hopes would be out of reach for even a savvier operation. "We have to either mobilize or get out," Representative John Murtha (Pa.) -- one of the most hawkish Democrats on the Hill -- told a May 6 news conference. "I don't know that we have the will to mobilize."

No one in Washington expects to bring all the troops home by Christmas. But in the vision that's starting to emerge, Christmas, 2005, could signal the start of a major drawdown. By that point, Iraq is supposed to have an elected government, a new constitution, and a trained military and police force in place. The U.N. would presumably be playing a much larger role in helping to develop new governing institutions. And if Iraqi resentment of the U.S. presence hasn't quieted by then, Washington would face a strong temptation to declare victory and get out.

That scenario would scuttle the Bush team's grand design of remaking the Middle East: Washington would settle for stability and security instead. Clearly, a new President John F. Kerry would be more likely to accept that trade-off. Kerry "won't feel the obligation to defend any of the decisions of the Bush Administration," says Jon B. Alterman, a Middle East specialist at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. But even for a reelected President Bush, the benefits of a strategic shift would be substantial. The soaring cost of the mission, already approaching $200 billion, would be capped. So would U.S. casualties. And a withdrawal would remove a major irritant in the Islamic world, help repair strained ties with our allies, and mute charges of imperialism.

CYCLE OF VIOLENCE

Why the shift in attitude? Washington's goals seem ever more elusive in the face of growing Iraqi resistance and America's self-inflicted wounds. A Gallup Poll conducted in late March and early April shows Iraqis' favorable opinion of Uncle Sam plummeting, especially in Baghdad, where the numbers sank from 28% in September to just 9%. Since then, renewed fighting in Fallujah and Najaf and shocking revelations of U.S. troops' abuse of prisoners have inflamed Iraqis and escalated the cycle of violence. There is no more vivid evidence of how terrorists can exploit Iraqi anger than the vicious beheading of American contractor Nick Berg on May 11. The prison abuses are "dashing the hopes of people who looked to us for an example and the power of change," concedes a top Administration official. "[The impact] will be profound, and it will be long-term."

Support for a prolonged U.S. mission in Iraq is waning at home, too. Approval of the President's handling of the war collapsed from 61% in January to 41% in early May, according to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll. Even among Republicans, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows those favoring troop withdrawal within 18 months rose to 37% in early May, from 27% in March.

That kind of timetable is starting to win support from thinkers at both ends of the political spectrum. On the left, Morton Abramowitz of the Century Foundation argues that a serious cost-benefit analysis may well indicate that the U.S. has achieved as much as it realistically can and that the troops should come home in a year or so. While the costs of staying are clear and enormous, additional benefits such as the spread of democracy are uncertain at best. It's "more prayer than analysis," he wrote recently in The National Interest.

On the Right, retired Army Lieutenant General William E. Odom of the Hudson Institute contends that the U.S. simply doesn't have the troop strength to sustain the current level of effort for much longer. He notes that World War II GIs were considered exhausted after 180 days in combat -- while some soldiers have been in Iraq for a year or more. "We have a force structure wholly incapable of carrying out what these guys [in the Administration] want to carry out," he says.

FRAGILE PROGRESS

The cut-and-walk crowd may take heart from a few potentially positive signs that Iraqis can handle their own security sooner than expected. Already, rehabilitated Iraqi officers are trying to calm the insurgent hotbed of Fallujah, although it's unclear whether they're disarming dissidents or providing cover for bomb makers. In Najaf, moderate Shiites are marching against firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and negotiating to marginalize his brigade.

An Iraq that puts unity ahead of ethnic identity is also starting to take shape. Kurdish leaders led the way by agreeing to settle for autonomy rather than demanding full independence. Sunni and Shiite clerics have forsworn religious strife. And Grand Ayatollah Ali Husaini Sistani, an influential Shiite leader, has said he wants elections, opposes mullahs running for office, and won't press for adoption of Islamic law -- all signs that an Iran-style theocracy may be avoided.

By any measure, this progress is fragile. And the risks of pulling U.S. forces out too soon are enormous. Even at the end of 2005, the Iraqi security forces and the new government will still be in their infancy. They may need a strong sheriff to prevent civil war or dominance by the military. Unless democratic institutions -- the rule of law, political parties, and civil society -- have time to develop, "the security instrument ends up running the whole country," says Francis Fukuyama, a professor at Johns Hopkins University's Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.

Typically, this process takes at least five years. Shorter interventions don't get the job done: Haiti and Somalia plunged back into chaos after brief U.S. stays. Longer missions in Japan, Germany, and Bosnia proved more effective. So an early exit runs the risk of becoming a round trip, with U.S. troops forced to return to Iraq to sort out the mess left behind. That's not the only danger a quick pullout poses. Terrorists may be emboldened if they can portray Uncle Sam as a helpless giant in retreat.

The need to demonstrate resolve is one reason the Administration's official line remains a generational commitment to the region. Anything less, it argues, will undermine America's national interests. "We will be there militarily for as long as it takes, which will be years," says Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.).

But a growing chorus of skeptics wonders whether any commitment of blood and treasure will bring about a peaceful, democratic Islamic regime in Iraq or beyond. If that's unattainable, they argue, the U.S. should trim its goals -- and make sure the troops don't spend too many more Christmases in Baghdad.

By Stan Crock, with Mike McNamee, in Washington

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