British Gen. Sir Richard Dannatt is being quoted worldwide for saying that his nation’s 7,200 soldiers in Iraq should be pulled out soon because “our presence exacerbates the security problems” there. This follows the partial release of an April National Intelligence Estimate that concludes, “The Iraq conflict has become the ’cause celebre’ for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of U.S. involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement.”
These signals for policy change have arrived as President George Bush recently reassured Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that the United States had no timetable for him to start demonstrating progress in the war. But it is the very lack of progress on issues such as disarming the militias that heightens a demand for a change of course.
Congress has been looking for a way to express the conclusions of Gen. Dannatt and the NIE without being accused of “cutting and running,” and many have expressed the reservation that the chaos that would follow a U.S. withdrawal would be worse than the chaos that exists in Iraq now. Sen. John Warner, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, helped his colleagues recently when he described the United States operation in Iraq as “drifting sideways,” and did what no Democrat has been able to get away with doing – he set a timetable.
The scores of deaths in recent days, demonstrating once again the level of violence between Sunni and Shiite, insurgent and occupier, will not wait for months or years while the White House and Congress slowly cover the tracks of their earlier views and goals. Sen. Warner said that if in three months the violence in Iraq is not under control, the United States should consider a change in course. That timing, naturally, works well with the Iraqi Study Group led by former Secretary of State James Baker, which reportedly is considering several policy overhauls. They include a gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops to bases beyond Iraq – where they would still be available, presumably for air strikes. A more ambitious option is said to call for including Iran and Syria in talks to help bring stability to the region.
What is notable about these choices is that they are bereft of sweeping ideas about spreading democracy and heavy on practical notions of improving security and establishing order, even if it is not the kind of order the United States envisioned for Iraq in 2003.
It is important to note that the favored option of the Iraqi Study Group does not appear to be immediate withdrawal. (Just as important as the well-known NIE passage above is the one that follows it: “Should jihadists leaving Iraq perceive themselves, and be perceived, to have failed, we judge fewer fighters will be inspired to carry on the fight.”) But the current goals should shift to a region-wide effort to promote stability with perhaps the strengthening of provincial governments to promote that goal; a vigorous reconciliation process to seek peaceful ends to current localized fighting; and, without setting deadlines, a clearer timetable for progress for withdrawing U.S. troops.
Time is too short to wait on what so many are already proposing.