Wishful Thinking on Iraq

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

IT SEEMS like just weeks ago, because it was, that Congress approved funding for the war in Iraq and instructed Gen. David H. Petraeus to report back on the war's progress in September. Now, for reasons having more to do with American politics than with Iraqi reality, September isn't soon enough. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) says he wants a vote in the next week or two "to truly change our Iraq strategy," by which he means starting to withdraw U.S. troops. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), the leading Democratic candidate for president, urged President Bush on Tuesday "to begin ending the war . . . today." Increasing numbers of Republicans agree. But many of them seem reluctant to confront the likely consequences of a U.S. troop withdrawal.

We agree with Mrs. Clinton that President Bush has been guilty of "wishful thinking" on Iraq. When he was promoting his surge policy at the beginning of this year, we said Iraq's political leadership was unlikely to accept compromises any time soon. It was predictable, therefore, that Mr. Bush's benchmarks would not be met and that within a few months the policy he put forward without popular or congressional support would become even more difficult to sustain.

But his wishful thinking can't excuse, even if it helps explain, the wishful thinking on the other side. Advocates of withdrawal would like to believe that Afghanistan is now a central front in the war on terror but that Iraq is not; believing that doesn't make it so. They would like to minimize the chances of disaster following a U.S. withdrawal: of full-blown civil war, conflicts spreading beyond Iraq's borders, or genocide. They would have us believe that someone or something will ride to the rescue: the United Nations, an Islamic peacekeeping force, an invigorated diplomatic process. They like to say that by withdrawing U.S. troops, they will "end the war."

Conditions in Iraq today are terrible, but they could become "way, way worse," as the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan C. Crocker, a career Foreign Service officer, recently told the New York Times. If American men and women were dying in July in a clearly futile cause, it would indeed be immoral to wait until September to order their retreat. But given the risks of withdrawal, the calculus cannot be so simple. The generals who have devised a new strategy believe they are making fitful progress in calming Baghdad, training the Iraqi army and encouraging anti-al-Qaeda coalitions. Before Congress begins managing rotation schedules and ordering withdrawals, it should at least give those generals the months they asked for to see whether their strategy can offer some new hope.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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