A Consensus Waiting to Happen
The last time I remember Ambassador Ryan Crocker warning about a possible bloodbath, it was in September 1982 as the Sabra-Shatila massacre was taking place in Beirut. So when Crocker tells the New York Times that a rapid U.S. withdrawal from Iraq could produce a human tragedy on a far larger scale, people should take notice. He has seen it happen before.
Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, described the dangers starkly on Monday in explaining what might happen if the United States withdraws its troops too quickly from Iraq: "The dangers could be a civil war, dividing the country, regional wars and the collapse of the state."
Those are the stakes as the Senate debates the military authorization bill this week. The daily death toll measures the cost America and the Iraqis already are paying, but Crocker and Zebari are right in warning that a sudden U.S. withdrawal could be even more costly: The violence that is destroying Iraq could spread throughout the region -- an inferno stretching across Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Syria, and even Egypt and Saudi Arabia -- with devastating consequences for global security.
Getting into Iraq was President Bush's decision, and history will judge his administration harshly for its mistakes in the postwar occupation. But getting out of Iraq is now partly in the hands of the Democrats who control both houses of Congress. History will be equally unforgiving if their agitation for withdrawal results in a pell-mell retreat that causes lasting damage.
The Iraq debate in Washington this week is intense and angry. But as with the Palestinian conflict, the rhetorical fireworks mask the fact that there's an emerging consensus on what the final result should be. Leaders on both sides endorse the broad strategy proposed in December by the Iraq Study Group: a gradual withdrawal that shifts the American mission to training, force protection, counterterrorism and border security. That formula gets wide support from members of Congress and administration officials alike. As a senior administration official puts it, it's "where everybody agrees you want to go." The problem is getting there.
The essential elements of the compromise that's necessary don't seem all that complicated. Democrats need to be assured that the troops are beginning to come out; the administration needs to be assured that they aren't coming out so quickly that it will undermine regional security.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates appears to recognize what's necessary, politically and strategically. He is said to favor an announcement by September that the United States will withdraw some troops from Iraq before year-end as a sign that it is committed to a "post-surge" redeployment. The opportunity for a modest drawdown will arise this fall, when two battalions, several thousand troops at most, are scheduled to rotate out of Iraq. One of those is a Marine battalion in Anbar province, where the administration has been touting U.S. success. A good way to underline the gains in Anbar would be to reduce U.S. troop levels there.
Another chance for compromise is the United Nations authorization for the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, which must be renewed this year. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki wants a plan to reduce the number of American troops in his country as much as any member of Congress does. Here's the real opportunity for "timelines" on withdrawal -- ones jointly negotiated by U.S. and Iraqi diplomats rather than imposed by Congress. In a perverse sense, that's the greatest gift America can bestow on the Iraqi government -- to engineer the joint "liberation" of Iraq from U.S. occupation, but "slowly, slowly," as the Arabs like to say.
It used to be said of the Palestinians that "they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity." Sadly, that has been true for the Bush administration during the past year in its failure to shape a bipartisan policy on Iraq. The release of the Baker-Hamilton report in December provided an opportunity; Bush missed it. Another chance arose in late May, when Bush himself proclaimed that his strategy for the future was " Plan B-H," meaning Baker-Hamilton. But he didn't follow through.
The president should have gathered the members of the Iraq Study Group in the Rose Garden the next day and dispatched them to visit members of Congress. Sorry, Mr. President, but Democratic Study Group members Vernon Jordan and Leon Panetta would be more effective lobbyists right now than anyone from the White House.
There's broad agreement on the need to put Iraq policy on a sustainable path that will gradually withdraw American forces without producing the bloodbath that frightens people such as Ryan Crocker in Baghdad. But Bush and the Democrats are running out of opportunities to make it happen.