After the Surge

By Steven N. Simon, the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of a new report titled «After the Surge: The Case for U.S. Military Disengagement from Iraq» (THE WASHINGTON POST, 06/03/07):

Congress may still be debating President George W. Bush’s surge strategy in Iraq, but the administration’s strategy shift is now a fait accompli. With two of the five extra brigades already in Baghdad and a third on the way, the surge is going forward. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and General David Petraeus expect to know the results by early summer. Planning what happens next should start now.

Looking down the road, policymakers must face four grim realities:

  • The U.S. has already achieved all that it is likely to achieve in Iraq in neutralizing Saddam Hussein, eliminating Iraq’s ability to threaten its neighbors, and planting the seeds of constitutional democracy. Staying in Iraq can only drive up the price of these gains in blood, treasure, and strategic position.
  • The United States cannot determine Iraq’s political destiny militarily. American forces have not ended the violence and will not do so. The continued U.S. troop presence renders America culpable but not capable — responsible for developments in Iraq but unable to shape them.
  • A continuing military commitment to Iraq may lead to a second defeat by siphoning resources and attention away from Afghanistan.
  • The Iraq war hamstrings the U.S. military, making it much harder to handle another serious contingency or coerce other adversaries. The sooner Washington grasps this, the sooner it can begin to repair America’s damaged credibility. Staying means more damage and delayed repair.
  • Public support for the intervention is collapsing. According to a Washington Post/ABC poll, 53 percent of Americans want a deadline for troop withdrawals. Twenty-four percent want U.S. forces out within six months and 21 percent within a year; 56 percent want troops redeployed even if the sectarian violence climbs as a result. More alarming, 64 percent think «the war is not worth fighting.» The free fall in support will eventually compel U.S. forces to disengage. Better a discretionary withdrawal now than a mandatory one later, in hectic response to public opposition to the war or unexpectedly sharp reverses on the ground in Iraq.

    As I wrote in «After the Surge: The Case for U.S. Military Disengagement from Iraq,» the United States should withdraw the bulk of American forces within twelve to eighteen months. A quicker timetable would ignore logistical complexities and reinforce perceptions of a rout. The priorities should be containing the conflict and engaging Iraq’s neighbors — including Iran and Syria, who the administration have begun to approach under congressional pressure — and potential donors to an Iraq stabilization plan.

    U.S. military disengagement would not mark the end of America’s involvement in Iraq. There would still be American defense, economic, commercial, and technical assistance, and a joint intelligence effort. To provide a quick-reaction capability and signal that disengagement from Iraq did not signify abandonment of the region, U.S. deployments to friendly nearby states could be stepped up.

    The costs of staying are unacceptably high. But, having staked its prestige on the intervention and fallen short of most of its objectives, the United States will pay a price for disengagement, too. How big this price will be is impossible to predict. Yet the administration insists that withdrawal would spark regional «chaos» and hand a victory to Iran and al Qaeda.

    A regional conflagration might be conceivable, but is not guaranteed. Civil wars in the region have largely been contained within divided states. Greater violence within Iraq is probable, but with the combatants relatively lightly armed, the killing won’t inevitably turn genocidal. The U.S. and UN can minimize the risk by planning for an international rescue effort just in case, while keeping heavy weapons out of Iraq.

    Since the U.S. single-handedly empowered Iran already by removing its most dangerous adversaries — Saddam Hussein and the Taliban — and installing a Shiite government in Baghdad, it’s hard to see how the withdrawal of US forces would provide Tehran with a significantly greater advantage.

    The jihadists have already chalked up two victories in Iraq, the first when the US confirmed Osama bin Laden’s narrative by invading, and the second via America’s failure to impose its will on Iraq. In any case, the administration’s worry about rewarding Iran and al Qaeda springs from a misdiagnosis of Iraq’s troubles. The problem is not that two evil outsiders are trying to hobble moderate, nationalist Iraqis working to create a pluralistic democracy. It is that 40 years of Baathist rule, sanctions, and anarchy unleashed by the 2003 invasion stripped Iraqis of the ability to create «normal» politics.

    The United States can further reduce the cost of withdrawal by acting decisively and creatively across the wider Middle East to offset perceptions of American weakness that our setback in Iraq has triggered. The obvious arena for action is the triangle formed by Israel, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority. Saudi pressure is already moving the administration in this direction.

    In 2004, Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s deputy, said of the U.S. intervention: «America is between two fires. If it stays in Iraq, it will bleed to death; if it leaves, it will lose everything.» His forecast comes disturbingly close to describing current circumstances. It need not, however, be prophecy. But the United States must fundamentally recast its commitment to Iraq. If the United States manages its departure carefully, the United States will preserve the opportunity to recover vital assets that its campaign in Iraq has imperiled: diplomatic initiative, global reputation, and the well-being and political utility of its ground forces.