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An Exit to Disaster

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By Michael Gerson
Wednesday, June 27, 2007

History seems to be settling on some criticisms of the early conduct of the Iraq war. On the theory that America could liberate and leave, force levels were reduced too early, security responsibilities were transferred to Iraqis before they were ready, and planning for future challenges was unrealistic. "Victory in Iraq," one official of the Coalition Provisional Authority told me a couple of years ago, "was defined as decapitating the regime. No one defined victory as creating a sustainable country six months down the road."

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Now Democrats running for president have thought deeply and produced their own Iraq policy: They want to cut force levels too early and transfer responsibility to Iraqis before they are ready, and they offer no plan to deal with the chaos that would result six months down the road. In essential outline, they have chosen to duplicate the early mistakes of an administration they hold in contempt.

The Democratic debate on Iraq has become an escalating contest of exit strategies. Sen. Hillary Clinton outlines a "three-step plan to bring the troops home starting now." Sen. Barack Obama pledges to "have all our troops out by March 31 of next year." Former senator John Edwards wants a "timetable for withdrawal" that would generously leave "some presence to guard the embassy, for example, in Baghdad."

No one can confidently predict the outcome of a precipitous withdrawal, but the signs aren't good. Experts such as Fred Kagan at the American Enterprise Institute believe a full-scale Iraqi civil war would result in massive sectarian cleansing that "might not leave a single Sunni in Baghdad." Hundreds of thousands or more, he expects, would die.

Nearby powers in that nasty neighborhood would be tempted to intervene in favor of various Iraqi factions, raising the prospect that civil war might escalate into a regional conflict. "Even if it is kept at the proxy level," says Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution, "proxy fights can be ruinous to countries around it."

And the descent of Iraq into complete lawlessness would allow terrorists to carve out fiefdoms. According to the national intelligence estimate issued in January, al-Qaeda "would attempt to use parts of the country -- particularly Anbar province -- to plan increased attacks in and outside Iraq."

When pressed to address these consequences, most of the Democratic candidates offer a response similar to Edwards's: "As we withdrew our combat troops out of Iraq, I would not leave the region." So America would defend its interests from a safe distance in Kuwait. But how effective has it been to fight terrorist networks in Pakistan from a distance? How effective has it been to fight genocide in Sudan from a distance? This is less an argument than an alibi.

Some Democratic foreign policy experts think that talk of immediate withdrawal is just politics for Iowa consumption; they give the candidates credit for their insincerity. A new Democratic president could easily announce that "circumstances are worse than I had feared" and adopt a more gradual and responsible plan.

But there is a problem with this approach. Feeding America's natural isolationism -- no country relishes sending its sons and daughters to fight in a far-off desert -- can create a momentum of irresponsibility that moves beyond control.

In 1974, a weary Congress cut off funds for Cambodia and South Vietnam, leading to the swift fall of both allies. In his memoir, "Years of Renewal," Henry Kissinger tells the story of former Cambodian prime minister Sirik Matak, who refused to leave his country.

"I thank you very sincerely," Matak wrote in response, "for your offer to transport me towards freedom. I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion. As for you, and in particular for your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty. You have refused us your protection, and we can do nothing about it. You leave, and my wish is that you and your country will find happiness under this sky. But, mark it well, that if I shall die here on the spot and in my country that I love, it is no matter, because we are all born and must die. I have only committed this mistake of believing in you [the Americans]."

Eventually, between 1 million and 2 million Cambodians were murdered by the Khmer Rouge when "peace" came to Indochina. Matak, Kissinger recounts, was shot in the stomach and died three days later.

Sometimes peace for America can produce ghosts of its own.

michaelgerson@cfr.org


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