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A Realistic Approach To Iraq

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By David Ignatius
Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Robert Gates, the new secretary of defense, warned this week that an American failure in Iraq would be a "calamity" that would haunt the United States for decades. Unfortunately, he's right. But what is a realistic definition of success? If we "surge" tens of thousands more troops into Iraq and march them up the hill, how will we march them back down?

What is a satisfactory and achievable outcome in Iraq? That's a question we all should have examined more carefully in 2003, and we're back to that same issue now as President Bush reviews a change in strategy. I worry that in this debate Bush will be tempted anew to seek a military victory that is unrealistic -- and might not be desirable even if it were possible.

America's security interests are not served by remaining indefinitely as an occupying power in Iraq. This is precisely the trap the enemy laid when Bush invaded in 2003 -- drawing U.S. forces into hostile terrain and then slowly picking away at them. It's the classic guerrilla strategy, used in Algeria, Vietnam, Afghanistan and a dozen other wars, and it works. That's because foreign expeditionary armies are rarely willing to insert enough troops to pacify a country in revolt. In this environment, an old-fashioned victory becomes an impossibility. The best outcome is often a rough patchwork order imposed by local forces, with help and training from foreign advisers.

The Pentagon military leadership swallowed its doubts about the achievability of the president's goals back in 2003, but not this time. According to a report by Robin Wright and Peter Baker in yesterday's Post, the Joint Chiefs of Staff are resisting proposals to surge as many as 30,000 additional troops into Iraq. To these skeptical commanders, a surge is not a strategy for victory so much as one of postponing the inevitable.

I saw a clear example of how this dilemma plays out on the battlefield when I visited Iraq in August with Gen. John Abizaid, the Centcom commander. At that time the Army had launched an aggressive campaign to regain control of Baghdad's toughest neighborhoods. We rumbled through Doura and Amiriyah in a little convoy of armored Humvees, and, sure enough, the show of American force seemed to be working -- for a while. The insurgents and death squads slipped away. But as soon as U.S. forces moved on to pacify other areas, they came back. A new surge of U.S. troops in Baghdad could repeat this cycle on a larger scale, but to what end?

So what is a realistic strategy for Iraq? That was the question that faced those in the Iraq Study Group, and for all the snide criticism of the Baker-Hamilton report, it seems to me they got the big things right: The current Iraq strategy isn't working; a quick withdrawal would be a mistake; a partition of Iraq would be dangerous. The problem with the report was that its upbeat recommendations didn't match its downbeat assessment of the sectarian crisis. More training of the Iraqi army isn't going to work if the barracks are on fire.

A radical approach to Iraq is to try to visualize an American presence that would be sustainable whether things went well or badly. What would it look like? For starters, we would treat Iraq more like a normal country. Americans would be in a fortified embassy compound rather than the Republican Palace. U.S. troops would be redeployed so that they could assist allies and punish enemies, rather than remaining hunkered down in the midst of a civil war, providing easy targets to both sides. The United States would pull back enough to have some freedom of maneuver. But it would remain engaged enough that it could intervene quickly to prevent a bloodbath. It would set red lines rather than try to dictate events.

A sensible Iraq strategy would draw in neighboring states, such as Syria and Iran, that share our interest in maintaining a unitary Iraqi state. That was a key recommendation of James Baker and Lee Hamilton and their commission, and they were right.

Negotiating with Iran is a non-starter while that nation is holding conferences for Holocaust-deniers. But it seems absolutely crazy not to explore some of the ideas that Syria's foreign minister, Walid Moallem, raised in an interview with me last week. The Syrian official said a rapid American pullout would be "immoral" and talked of joint Syrian-American efforts to stabilize Iraq and contain extremists. He also proposed unconditional peace talks with Israel. Worth discussing? Israeli officials are certainly curious.

But to a White House dreaming of military victory in Iraq, these real-world options smack of a sellout. Rather than using the Baker-Hamilton process to rebuild consensus for a viable Iraq strategy, officials are taking potshots at the "surrender monkeys." Now, that's dangerous.

The writer co-hosts, with Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues athttp://blog.washingtonpost.com/postglobal. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.


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