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Dying for 'Maybe'

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By Richard Cohen
Wednesday, December 13, 2006

James A. Baker III, the renowned foreign policy realist, looked realism in the eye -- and blinked. The Iraq report he co-authored with Lee Hamilton recommended many things, but shied from the most realistic one of all: Get the hell out as soon as possible.

I know, I know. That would not be realistic, you say. Iraq would implode, Shiites and Sunnis would kill one another with abandon, al-Qaeda would prosper, Iran would extend and enhance its influence, Syria would gloat, Israel would be even more threatened, and the United States would suffer the sort of humiliating defeat that would encourage fanatics all over the world to take a whack at us. This is not realism. This is madness.

And yet . . . and yet, none of these propositions are proved or, in some cases, very likely. For instance, if you want to get rid of what's left of al-Qaeda in Iraq, let the locals do the job. Once the United States is no longer the common enemy, the militias now busily engaged in killing Americans will turn on al-Qaeda. This is their destiny.

As for the rest of this nightmare scenario, who knows? It's likely that Sunnis and Shiites would battle it out, but that's what they are already doing. A U.S. withdrawal will make things worse, of course, but America has to withdraw sooner or later, and then the civil war that our guys have (barely) managed to contain will break out with a vengeance. We cannot stop it; we can only delay it -- at the cost of more American lives. As for Iraq's loathsome neighbors -- Iran and Syria -- you could argue that they have a stake in keeping Iraq stable, lest a flood of refugees swamp them both.

The truth is that no one knows what will happen to Iraq if U.S. troops pull out more or less precipitously because, among other things, no one knows what's going on in Iraq now. (See the Baker-Hamilton report for depressing details.) My guess is that the civil war will deepen and that Iraq, after having history imposed on it by Brits in pith helmets, will make its own history. Maybe the Kurdish region will go its own way, taking its oil with it. Maybe the Shiites in the south will embrace Iranian hegemony -- or maybe they will remember they're not Persians who speak Farsi but Arabs who speak Arabic, and resume the old enmity. Maybe Osama bin Laden will buy a condo in Baghdad. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

Maybes are not sufficient reason for Americans to continue to die. Baker, the realist, understood that back when he was George H.W. Bush's secretary of state. The United States ended the Persian Gulf War with Saddam Hussein still in power, the Republican Guard mostly intact and with enough helicopter gunships to massacre as many as 150,000 Shiite insurrectionists in the south. The United States encouraged the rebellion and then, shamefully, looked the other way. You could argue that we fight a war today because we refused to really fight one the first time around.

Be that as it may, Baker and others in the first Bush administration did not get all teary about Iraqis killing Iraqis back in 1991. Their paramount goal was to spare not Iraqi lives but American ones. Coldly -- realistically is the preferred word -- they took no real action as Saddam Hussein slaughtered his opponents. This cold, chilling, amoral strategy was favored by the senior Bush but eschewed by his son. In the short run, the father had it right. In 1991 we needed to stay out. In 2006 we need to get out.

That's not likely to happen. Instead we will follow a policy that can be called Son of Vietnamization. In Vietnam, we turned over the job of managing the defeat to the South Vietnamese; in Iraq, we will give it to the Iraqis. We will blame them for not fighting as well as they should, for giving their primary allegiance to their families, tribes or religious sects -- in short, for being Third World peoples. They are to blame for being who they are.

As with Vietnam, the ending is inevitable. We will get out, and the only question that remains is whether we get out with 3,000 dead or 4,000 or 5,000. At some point the American people will not countenance, and Congress will not support, a war that cannot be won. Just how many lives will be wasted in what we all know is a wasted effort is about the only question still left on the table. Realism dictates as few as possible.

cohenr@washpost.com


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