Exit Strategy for Iraq

Everyone is talking about Iraq, whether to get out and if so how and when. Much of the comment is the result of careful analysis, but all of it misses the central point. Until that point is grasped, there will be no viable exit strategy. There will only be more or less informed and ingenious schemes designed to reduce the pain.

A viable exit strategy has to start with Israel. As long as we start with an “Israel right or wrong” assumption we are doomed to failure. There’s a long history here, of course, but the most recent developments have only made a bad situation impossible. When we supported Israel’s recent slash and burn campaign in Lebanon we destroyed what little moral credibility we had in the region, and when we looked the other way as they salted the countryside with our cluster bombs, we became associate monsters in our own right. We may think our cause is just but we shall not get anywhere as long as almost everyone else sees us as evil.

The essential first step to developing an effective exit strategy in Iraq must be a conspicuous and effective effort to rein in the Israelis. We must be seen to be tough with them, and the reality must match the perception. We must tell the present leaders of Israel publicly that we mean business about the road map and the settlements, and tell them privately that if they don’t do what we are telling them to do, and do it without innumerable Talmudic provisos, they had better be prepared to face the next few years without our financial support and military assistance. They’ll have no choice but to comply. The rest of the world will breath a sigh of relief. It will be like lancing a boil.

Our changed face towards Israel need not involve repudiation of our commitment to Israel’s survival. We are morally committed to that. The threat of ending our financial and direct military support would be quite enough to accomplish our purpose.

Our new posture could lead fairly promptly to a genuine peace settlement and the establishment of an independent Palestinian entity. But implementation of a new exit strategy from Iraq need not wait for that. We would immediately, once our new policy were established and recognized, regain the prestige and authority we needed to end our Iraqi involvement in a way that would be honorable and in the best interests of the region.

We could convene a congress of interested parties, both within Iraq and outside, and let the diplomats loose on an intersecting array of problems, looking for tradeoffs that would allow solutions (cf. “Restoring Order in the Middle East”). Whether we chose the congress route or stuck with normal bilateral diplomacy, our changed policy on the Palestine issue would guarantee that both our private and public diplomatic efforts would be vastly more persuasive.

We could start quite soon to withdraw our armed forces to a few base areas within Iraq, while committing to an eventual complete withdrawal from the country. We would keep the bases only as long as they were useful as bargaining chips in our efforts to control the growing desire of competing political factions to kill each other. In other words, we could use the threat of military force, and if necessary its deployment, to play an effective balance of power role in maintaining an equilibrium of sorts between the factions as long as necessary to arrive at some basis for a more permanent arrangement.

We could arrange for a permanent mechanism to divide Iraq’s oil revenues equitably between the factions, to be administered by some outside authority. (This has been proposed recently and should probably be done anyway).

Dream on. It is, regrettably, unrealistic to expect either the present administration or any likely successor to grasp the Israeli nettle firmly enough to adopt this kind of approach. The prospect, therefore, is for an increasingly elaborate series of exit strategies, official and unofficial, none of which will work very well. The best we can hope is that our leaders will eventually work something out that doesn’t fail quite as miserably as our present non-strategy of “staying the course”.

Carl Coon, 9/28/06

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