Monday, September 10, 2007

A New Strategic Objective in Iraq

As the British withdraw from Basra, we here in America are struggling to find a way to meet our goals in Iraq.

There have been many proposed solutions, but there are no good options; each plan to fix or to get out of Iraq contains serious flaws.

Our strategic objective in Iraq since the start of the war has been to create pro-American coalition government in Baghdad. The original Rumsfeld plan was to go in, create some degree of stability while training the Iraqis to pacify Iraq. We would then withdraw leaving the rest of the nation building to the Iraqis.

It didn’t work.

The options

We now have 3 options available. The first is to maintain the current strategy. This is the Bush Administration’s point of view. The second is a rapid withdrawal of forces, a position held by a fairly small group mostly on the left. The third is to start a phased withdrawal, beginning sometime in the next few months and concluding when circumstances allow. This is the consensus among most moderate Democrats and a growing number of Republicans. All three options, however, suffer from fatal defects.

Bush’s plan for staying the course makes very little sense. We have tried this option for 4 years now, and it has not been successful. As they say, trying the same method twice and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.

But there is an argument for this case. The Bush Administration, as do the plan’s supporters, argue that this plan should continue indefinitely in order to avoid a more dangerous outcome: an Iranian controlled Middle East.

There is no question that if the U.S. were to withdraw, there would be a major power vacuum in the Middle East. Who else to fill that vacuum but Iran? Saudi Arabia does not have the military might to stand up to Iran.

But you must consider the defects of this approach. The army is near the breaking point and morale is low at home. The cost of this approach, in money and lives, will continue to rise.

The second option is a phased withdrawal. This appears to be the most reasonable, moderate proposal. But consider this: if the mission were to remain the same – fight the insurgents and train the Iraqi army in order to increase security – then we would be doing the same job with fewer troops, and still maintaining casualties. Fewer casualties, but nevertheless American injuries and deaths.

Only under a different strategic goal would phased withdrawal make sense. Most likely, that redefined goal would be dealing with Iran. But under the same strategic goal the U.S. has been pursuing since the start of the war, phased withdrawal is the least defensible strategy.

Championed by presidential candidate Bill Richardson, the third option is an immediate pullout. If we are to withdraw, this plan would be more attractive than a phased withdrawal; it achieves the same ends without the casualties.

The flaw of this strategy is that it opens the door for Iran to dominate Iraq. The only power in the region that could have any chance of stopping the Iranians is the Turks, and Turkey has no problem with a controlled Kurdish population.

Sunnis, Kurds and even some Shiites would resist Iran. But Iraq is much more important to Iran than it is to the U.S., and the authoritarian Iranian theocracy has a much higher pain resistance than the U.S.

The situation would be an extraordinary opportunity for the Iranians; they would be knocking on Saudi Arabia’s door. The Saudis don’t have the military might to stop Iran, and Saudi Arabia could be forced into a political agreement with the Iranians. Iran could even influence Saudi oil. The whole Arabian Peninsula would be threatened.

All three conventional options, therefore, contain serious flaws. Continuing the current strategy pursues an unattainable goal. Staged withdrawal exposes fewer U.S. troops to more aggressive enemy action. Rapid withdrawal quickly opens the door for possible regional Iranian hegemony -- and lays a large part of the world's oil reserves at Iran's feet.

Changing the objective

We have three approaches, each with imperfections. The solution is to change the strategic goal.

The obvious choice for America’s new objective is the prevention of an Iranian hegemony. Besides creating a stable, pro-American government in Iraq, what is in our national interest in the Middle East? To stop anti-American forces. Expanded Iranian power will not help American interests in the Middle East or around the globe.

The U.S. cannot control the populace of Iraq. The U.S. has never been a great counterinsurgency force, but we remain a great conventional force. Therefore, we still have the ability to stop Iran. We could position our forces in Saudi Arabia, but the last time that happened, we helped sparked the rise of Islamic terrorism. The best remaining areas are Kurdistan and Kuwait.

Residual U.S. forces would be left in Kurdistan and Kuwait to keep Iran under control. This would allow for a rebuilding of the military and a reduction of American casualties.

Since all three conventional options are flawed, this is the only way out. We leave on our own terms, with fewer casualties, with our national honor. We would have a chance to rebuild the military, and a chance to salvage our interests in the Middle East.