With apparent disregard for the opinion of the American people, the debate over whether the large U.S. military presence in Iraq threatens our national security has been put on hold. Both political parties seem resigned to allowing the Bush administration to run out the clock on its Iraq strategy and bequeath this quagmire to the next president. The result is best described as strategic drift, and stopping it won't be easy.
President Bush claims that his strategy is having some success, but toward what end? He argued that the surge would provide the political breathing space needed to achieve a unified, peaceful Iraq. But its successes, which Bush says come from a reduction of casualties in certain areas, have been accompanied by massive sectarian cleansing. The surge has not moved us closer to national reconciliation.
Strategic drift is being aided by many in the legislative and executive branches (in both political parties), most of the foreign policy elite, and several policy research institutions. Conservatives continue to align themselves with Bush's Iraq strategy; some have offered muted criticisms of the implementation and handling of the war, but there has been no call to change direction.
Progressives must be careful not to repeat the mistakes made in 2002 and 2004, when they failed to offer a clear challenge or choice on Iraq. Splitting the difference and hedging on positions helped get America into this quagmire. But during the Democratic presidential debate in Philadelphia last month, Iran, not Iraq, was at the forefront. Iraq is the issue of greatest concern to voters. Progressive candidates should be offering clarity on Iraq and pushing for a real change in course.
The many dangers of allowing our Iraq policy to drift include undermining our ability to respond effectively to other contingencies, such as the ongoing fight in Afghanistan. Not only do we no longer have a strategic ground reserve, but the Army has been forced to lower its recruiting standards to unprecedented levels. The war's human and financial costs continue to rise: More Americans have died in Iraq so far in 2007 than in all of 2006, and the direct financial cost has exceeded $600 billion.
Proponents of the current path claim that, after four years of failed strategies, the surge was needed to get Iraq on track. They point to recent declines in the overall level of violence and cooperation at the local level between some Sunni insurgents and U.S. forces. But the progress being made at the local level often undermines the stated goal of creating a unified, stable, democratic Iraq.
Rather than push for a realistic end to U.S. engagement, the Bush administration claims doomsday scenarios would become reality if a phased U.S. withdrawal began. Iraq, it says, would become a terrorist sanctuary, incite regional war or be the scene of sectarian genocide. These arguments are as faulty as those that led us into Iraq, and progressive leaders must push back. Strategic drift only forestalls the hard work needed to avoid these dangers.
The real security problem in Iraq is a vicious power struggle among competing militias and factions. Foreign terrorists are mainly Sunni and represent only a small percentage of the problem. The Sunni foreign terrorists united with Sunni Iraqis are strongly opposed by Iraq's Shiites and Kurds. And in Anbar province, Sunni tribal leaders rose up against the pro-al-Qaeda Sunni elements well before the surge began. Drifting along the current path actually enhances the al-Qaeda narrative of America as an occupier of Muslim nations.
Similarly, the presence of a large U.S. combat force contributes to regional instability. Since the surge began, the number of internally displaced Iraqis has more than doubled. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has said that more than 2 million Iraqis have left the country, and tens of thousands flee every day, often to squalid camps in Syria and Jordan.
As long as U.S. forces remain in Iraq in significant numbers, regional powers feel free to meddle, knowing that America must bear the consequences. If we clearly state our intent to leave, these states will have incentive to intervene constructively; it would endanger their own security if Iraq were to become a failed state or a launching pad for international terrorism. Even Shiite-dominated Iran, which has become the region's largest power as a result of the war, would not want an Iraqi haven for Sunni-controlled al-Qaeda.
There is one sure way to stop this drift. The United States must set a firm withdrawal date. It is the only way Iraqis and regional leaders will make the compromises necessary to stabilize Iraq and the entire Middle East. This withdrawal can be completed safely in 12 to 18 months and should be started immediately.
President Bush seems content to let Iraq drift until he leaves office, but America can ill afford this policy or, worse, continuing to drift until 2013.
John Podesta, president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, was White House chief of staff from 1998 to 2001. Lawrence J. Korb, an assistant secretary of defense from 1981 to 1985, and Brian Katulis are senior fellows with the center's National Security Team.