Iraq: What Next?

Americans tend to think we can achieve almost any goal if we just expend more resources and try a bit harder. That spirit has built the greatest nation in history, but it may be dooming Iraq. As the head of the British Army recently noted, the very presence of large numbers of foreign combat troops is the source of much of the violence and instability. Our efforts, then, are merely postponing the day when Iraqis find their way to something approaching normalcy. Only withdrawal offers a realistic path forward.

Too often in the Iraq debate, we have let intuition, slogans, and appealing thoughts cloud logic. Perhaps the most troublesome example is the argument that we must honor the American dead by staying until we can build something worthy of their sacrifice. Stripped of its emotional tones, this argument is, in economic analysis, an appeal to sunk cost. An MIT professor once promised to fail me if I ever justified actions based on sunk cost--so I learned that what is gone is gone, and what is left we should conserve, cherish, and employ wisely.

A similarly illogical argument for staying in Iraq is that chaos will follow any near-term U.S. withdrawal. The flaw lies not in the concept that chaos will happen, but rather in thinking that chaos will only happen if we withdraw in the near-term. Chaos will almost certainly follow any U.S. withdrawal, whether in 2008 or 2012.

A more refined argument to extend our stay is that the calamity following a 2008 withdrawal would be worse than the chaos after a 2012 departure. But how can we have strong confidence in such a prediction--which assumes that more time means progress--when the United States and Iraq have produced so little in the way of progress thus far? Even granting that chaos after a 2008 pullout may be worse than what would follow a 2012 withdrawal, is the difference between those two levels of disaster worth the cost? This cost comes in American dead and wounded, Iraqi dead and wounded, billions of dollars in military expenditures, the continued damage to U.S. influence in the world, and the further strengthening of radical Islamist terrorists everywhere. We cannot have high confidence that the cost is worth whatever improvement there would be in the two levels of post-withdrawal chaos.

Another emotionally charged argument against withdrawal is that Al Qaeda will be emboldened by our departure. But are we to conclude that, if we make a mistake, we should continue to make it lest our enemies gloat? Al Qaeda is already sufficiently emboldened. The additional motivation it will derive from seeing U.S. forces leave Iraq cannot be accurately measured and is likely to be inconsequential.

There is also the argument that Al Qaeda will turn Iraq into a terrorist base if we leave. But Al Qaeda has already done that, and we are providing the targets in the shooting gallery. Advocating a near-term withdrawal of U.S. combat divisions is not the same as the United States foreswearing to act in Iraq in the future. We should declare that we will act, with the Iraqi government or without, to prevent Iraq from becoming a terrorist haven after we depart. Pursuing the terrorists in Iraq does not require 150,000 troops; it can be done with intelligence capabilities, U.S. Special Forces, and airpower--much of which can be based in Kuwait. Moreover, the Iraqis themselves may rid the country of Al Qaeda once that becomes their responsibility. Already, Sunni groups opposed to the U.S. presence are taking action against Al Qaeda.

We can pursue our core interests in Iraq--ensuring that the country does not become a terrorist base and that it does not destabilize the rest of the region--without a large occupying force. To do this, we should announce our intention to reduce U.S. forces in Iraq beginning in December and concluding with the withdrawal of all major ground combat units within 18 months; declare that the United States seeks no permanent military bases in Iraq; gain permission from Kuwait to station additional combat units there to create an "over the horizon" capability to deal with terrorists in Iraq; accelerate the training and equipping of the Iraqi army with embedded Special Forces; work with our regional allies to create an enhanced covert action capacity to combat Iraq-based terrorism; speed up U.S. reconstruction efforts; and convene a regional process to guarantee the stability of Iraq, inviting Iran, Syria, Jordan, Turkey, and the Gulf countries to join.

Are there problems with this plan? Of course. But our current approach--maintaining that we can fix Iraq if we just try a bit harder--is likely more seriously flawed and more costly than the alternative. Still, President Bush insists on staying in Iraq, and it is easy to understand why. In The March of Folly, Barbara Tuchman documented repeated instances when leaders persisted in disastrous policies well after they knew that success was no longer an available outcome.They did so because the personal consequences of admitting failure would be very high. So they postponed the disastrous end to their policy adventures, hoping for a deus ex machina or to eventually shift the blame. There is no need to do that now. Everyone already knows who is to blame. It is time to stop the adventure, lower our sights, and focus on America's core interests. And that means withdrawal of major combat units.

Richard A. Clarke served 30 years in the Pentagon, the State Department, and the White House. He is the author of Against All Enemies and the forthcoming novel Breakpoint.

This article originally ran in the November 27, 2006 issue of the magazine.