Three Choices, Mr. President

President Bush speaks at a Republican Party fundraiser in Washington last week.
President Bush speaks at a Republican Party fundraiser in Washington last week. (By Charles Dharapak -- Associated Press)
By Richard Holbrooke
Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Dear Mr. President:

As soon as the midterm elections are over -- and regardless of their outcome -- you will have to make the most consequential decision of your presidency, probably the most complicated any president has had to make since Lyndon Johnson decided to escalate in Vietnam in 1965, and far more difficult than your decisions after Sept. 11, 2001. Then, you rallied a nation in shock, overthrew the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and confronted Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs -- acting in all cases with self-confidence and overwhelming national approval.

Now all four projects are in peril. With far less public support, and time running out on your presidency, you must reverse the recent decline in Afghanistan, get North Korea back to the six-party talks, isolate a cocky, dangerous Iran that thinks events are going its way and, above all, figure out what to do with Iraq. So allow me to offer some very unsolicited suggestions on that war.

Broadly speaking, you have three choices: "Stay the course," escalate or start to disengage from Iraq while pressing hard for a political settlement. I will argue for the third course, not because it is perfect but because it is the least bad option.

In your radio address last week, you said that "our goal in Iraq is clear and unchanging: . . . victory." You added that the only thing changing "are the tactics. . . . Commanders on the ground are constantly adjusting their approach to stay ahead of the enemy, particularly in Baghdad." One can only hope that you do not mean those words literally -- or believe them. "Stay the course" is not a strategy; it is a slogan, useful in domestic politics but meaningless in the field.

Your real choice comes down to escalation or disengagement. If victory -- however defined -- is truly your goal, you should have sent more troops long ago. You and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld say that the commanders in Iraq keep telling you they don't need more troops, but, frankly, even if technically accurate, this is baffling. Plain and simple, there are not, and never have been, enough troops in Iraq to accomplish the mission.

But where would more troops come from? The Pentagon says the all-volunteer Army is stretched to the breaking point; it is now recruiting 42-year-olds and lowering entry standards. Afghanistan also needs more troops. And suppose additional troops do not turn the tide? Does the United States then send still more? Even advocates aren't sure escalation will produce a turnaround.

The last option is the most difficult for an embattled wartime president: Change your goals, disengage from the civil war already underway, focus maximum effort on seeking a political power-sharing agreement, and try to limit further damage in the region and the world.

Even your strongest critics understand that disengagement is fraught with risk. You have warned of the bloody consequences that might follow a U.S. withdrawal. Preventing such a tragedy must be your first priority. For this and other reasons, I do not favor a fixed timetable for withdrawal, since it would give away any remaining American flexibility and leverage. But the kind of killing that you predict would follow an American departure is in fact already underway, and nothing we have done has prevented it from increasing rapidly. At the current pace, there will be well over 40,000 murders a year in Iraq. A recent University of Maryland poll found that 78 percent of Iraqis surveyed believe the American presence is now "provoking more conflict than it is preventing," and 71 percent support a U.S. withdrawal within one year.

I urge you to lay out realistic goals, redeploy our troops and focus on the search for a political solution. We owe that to the Iraqis who welcomed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and put their trust in us, only to find their lives in danger as a result. By a political solution, I mean something far more ambitious than current U.S. efforts aimed at improving the position of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki by changing ministers or setting timelines for progress. Sen. Joe Biden and Les Gelb have advocated what they call, in a reference to the negotiations that ended the war in Bosnia in 1995, a "Dayton-like" solution to the political situation -- by which they mean a looser federal structure with plenty of autonomy for each of the three main groups, and an agreement on sharing oil revenue. Your administration has dismissed these proposals out of hand, and the time lost since Gelb first presented them more than two years ago has made them far more difficult to achieve.

Yet only two weeks ago, the Iraqi parliament took a big step toward creating more powerful regions, with an interesting proviso to delay implementation for 18 months. You could use this legislation as leverage to negotiate a peaceful arrangement for sharing power and oil revenue, while redeploying and reducing our forces in Iraq. If such an effort fails, nothing has been lost by trying.

Those who say this is a proposal to partition Iraq into three countries (which it is not) and would trigger all-out civil war are misrepresenting the idea, while offering nothing in its place. Whatever else you do, Mr. President, you should send American troops to northern Iraq (Kurdistan), which is still safe but increasingly tense, to reduce the very real risk of a Turkish-Kurdish war. Both the Turks and the Kurds would welcome this U.S. presence, but it would have to be accompanied by a cessation of Kurdish terrorist raids into Turkey. This would allow Special Forces troops to move rapidly into other parts of Iraq if a terrorist target appeared, and it would show the world that you were not withdrawing from America's commitment to Iraq.

In recent years, almost any advocate of a change in policy has been accused of wanting to "cut and run." Such rhetoric works against the bipartisanship that this crisis requires. But if you were to decide to draw down American troops -- without a fixed timetable -- and seek a political compromise, the responsible leadership of the Democratic Party would surely work with you, especially if the Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, recommends significant changes in policy, which you could use as a starting point for rebuilding a bipartisan national consensus.

This crisis is far too acute for recrimination. If we are still at war during the 2008 campaign, as seems likely if you do not change course, it will benefit neither party but will leave your successor with the same choices you now face, but under far worse circumstances.

Richard Holbrooke, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, writes a monthly column for The Post.

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