Time to get out?

With the war in Iraq turning into a nightmare, increasing numbers -- on the left and the right -- are calling for America to withdraw.

By Michelle Goldberg

Published May 10, 2004 7:38PM (EDT)

Just a month ago, the conventional wisdom on Iraq was that America, having smashed the old system, has a responsibility to stay until something new and better is built. While the antiwar left and the libertarian right issued calls to end the occupation, most mainstream voices, even those who had opposed the war, counseled perseverance.

But after the insurgency of April and the torture scandal of May, that's beginning to change. There's now a growing chorus on both the left and the right demanding that the administration acknowledge that its Iraq adventure is an unsalvageable failure and cut America's (and Iraq's) losses by bringing the troops home. The call for withdrawal hasn't yet reached critical mass, but if it does, it could affect both the dynamics of the 2004 election and the future of American involvement in Iraq.

"What used to be voices on the far fringe, whether it's the fringe left or fringe right, they are steadily creeping in towards the center," says Peter Feaver, a professor of political science at Duke University who served as director for defense policy and arms control on Bill Clinton's National Security Council. Calls to leave Iraq, he says, "are marching towards the middle of the establishment."

As the taboo against discussing withdrawal fades, critics are increasingly less deferential to the idea that America must finish what it began in Iraq, however foolish its invasion.

"Even among harsh critics of the administration's Iraq policy, the usual view is that we have to finish the job. You've heard the arguments: We broke it; we bought it. We can't cut and run. We have to stay the course," New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote on April 30. Krugman doesn't argue that America should pull out of Iraq, but he does argue that staying is a hopeless proposition. "I don't have a plan for Iraq," he says. "I strongly suspect, however, that all the plans you hear now are irrelevant."

On April 7, Robert Byrd became the first senator to call for pulling out. "The harsh reality is this: One year after the fall of Baghdad, the United States should not be casting about for a formula to bring additional U.S. troops to Iraq. We should instead be working toward an exit strategy," he said.

Byrd's stance didn't surprise anyone, but it was still significant. "Senator Byrd, he's always the first to recommend cutting and running," says Feaver. "He has a long career of recommending a hasty retreat, but he's now said it, and he's a sitting senator, which is very different from a sitting House member. It's a step up in terms of credibility."

A week later, Peter Galbraith, a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer and humanitarian crusader, published an article in the New York Review of Books called "How to Get Out of Iraq." In it, he wrote, "Americans like to think that every problem has a solution, but that may no longer be true in Iraq."

On the right, William E. Odom, a three-star lieutenant general, former director of the National Security Agency during the Reagan administration and director of national security studies at the conservative Hudson Institute, has also been arguing that the situation in Iraq is hopeless. Last week, he told the Wall Street Journal, "We have failed. The issue is how high a price we're going to pay ... Less, by getting out sooner? Or more, by getting out later?"

On Wednesday, he elaborated on Nightline, saying, "[T]o say you can't fail at that now, is to fail to realize that you've already failed. Now, when I say get out, I don't mean just pull out and walk out today. I would go through the procedures of going to the United Nations and encouraging a United Nations resolution to approve some U.N. force there. And I would be quite prepared to participate in that for a while, if we could get allies and others to come in. But then I would make it clear that I am slowly moving that responsibility to this force and withdrawing the U.S. over six months or so."

Patrick Buchanan's antiwar American Conservative magazine takes an even harder line. In the current cover story, author Christopher Layne argues that neither internationalization nor increasing troop strength will work, and that simply withdrawing is the least bad of several bad options. In a piece that is virtually indistinguishable from a left-wing antiwar screed, Layne says, "the time has come for a statesman to step forward and ask the American people the question that must be asked: if the United States remains in Iraq, how do we tell the U.S. troops there that one of them will be the last one to die for a mistake?"

Meanwhile, Greg Mitchell, editor of the trade magazine Editor & Publisher, recently wrote a column titled, "When Will the First Major Newspaper Call for a Pullout in Iraq?" "Are you ready, now, to think the unthinkable?" he asked his readers, many of whom work in the media industry. "Who will be the first in line to call for a phased withdrawal, not more troops? As with Vietnam, one brave voice (remember Walter Cronkite on Feb. 27, 1968) may inspire others."

Of course, different people mean different things when they call for withdrawal from Iraq. Some, like Layne, would pull out immediately and let Iraqis work (or fight) out the future of their country among themselves. Several on the right, including Daniel Pipes, once a proponent of the notion that a reformed Iraq would spread democratic values throughout the benighted Middle East, are now calling for the administration to appoint a pliable strongman to hold Iraq in check.

Liberals like Galbraith are more concerned with what the Iraqis themselves want -- to that end, he proposes a three-state solution, with Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds running independent republics united in a loose federation. "In my view, Iraq is not salvageable as a unitary state," he writes.

On May 6, the Nation published a forum called "How to Get Out of Iraq," with contributions from people including lefty luminaries Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, Ray Close, the former CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, at Princeton University.

Most call for some kind of international body to manage the transfer to Iraqi sovereignty and to provide security in the country. John Kerry has also promised to involve other nations in Iraq's reconstruction, and in some ways their plans resemble his, with one crucial difference -- while calling for U.N. involvement, Kerry has also suggested that more U.S. troops be sent to stabilize the country. The Nation writers, though, largely argue that American troops need to leave Iraq to others untainted by the botched occupation.

The most intriguing plan in the Nation comes from John Brady Kiesling, the diplomat who resigned last February to protest Bush's foreign policy. He suggests that America essentially stage its own defeat, allowing a designated Iraqi to reap the glory of driving the occupation from the country.

"A victorious Secretary Rumsfeld could not impose Ahmad Chalabi. However, a retreating US military can designate Iraq's liberator," writes Kiesling. "We must select the competent Iraqi patriot to whom we yield ground while bleeding his competitors. There will be casualties and disorder, no matter how brilliantly we orchestrate our withdrawal. But the overwhelming majority of Iraqis will rally around any man who claims to drive us out, and elections would validate his relatively bloodless victory."

If the plans of liberals and conservatives differ on details, they share the conviction that the presence of American troops in Iraq is causing more problems than it solves. "Washington's real choice is akin to that posed in an old oil-filter commercial that used to run on television," writes Layne. "America can pay now, or it can pay later when the costs will be even higher."

Critics argue that advocates of withdrawal fail to adequately appreciate what's at stake if America is defeated in Iraq. "There are only a handful of folks who are advocating that who have dealt honestly with the costs associated with it," says Feaver. "There's a lot of loose talk -- 'we cut and ran from Vietnam and we still won the Cold War.' That kind of analysis is very shallow and ahistorical."

Feaver invokes the "paper tiger" argument to justify staying in Iraq. "The costs of cutting and running is reinforcing the idea that you don't have to defeat American military power, you just have to make life unpleasant and kill enough Americans and you will break American will," he says. "That's the premise behind bin Laden's grand strategy against the U.S. It's quite serious."

Feaver also argues that a U.S. pullout could turn Iraq into even more of a terrorist haven than it's become since the war. "Afghanistan proves we have a vital interest in not letting a state become a failed state hijacked by terrorist organizations, and some vision of the future of Iraq might be that," says Feaver. "Just taking our troops and going home, that would produce as many costs to us as staying."

And if Iraq descends into a civil war, U.S. troops would be forced to return, he says. "It's worth remembering the civil war in Yugoslavia," Feaver says. "We couldn't stay out of it. The people who advocate cutting and running, I'm not sure how they think we can avoid getting involved in civil war in Iraq. If Yugoslavia disappears from the international economy, that's one thing. If the Persian Gulf disappears from the international economy, that's quite another."

Proponents of pulling out, though, say that it's foolish to ask Americans to die in the attempt to stop a bad situation from getting worse if there's also no prospect of it improving. "There's no credible evidence that things will get better the longer we stay," says Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for foreign policy and defense studies at the libertarian Cato Institute and an advocate of rapid withdrawal.

Advocates of withdrawal scoff at both the paper tiger and the terrorist-haven argument, saying that we are creating more terrorists by remaining in Iraq than we would if we left.

Pulling out, he says, "will damage our credibility, but the damage is likely to be less than if we stumble out of Iraq years from now having lost thousands of troops with a mission in obvious failure. In many ways Lyndon Johnson faced the same choice in late 1964-early 1965 -- either escalate the commitment in Vietnam or terminate the mission realizing it is at least a partial failure. He escalated. What he did was turn a foreign policy setback into an absolute debacle. I'm really afraid if we try and stay in Iraq, we're going to end up the same way."

More and more people are coming to the conclusion that the war in Iraq cannot be won, says Carpenter. "The sentiment is shifting. There is now at the very least a pervasive uneasiness about the way this mission is going," he says. "When you see people like retired General Odom calling for an immediate withdrawal -- this is an arch conservative, a hawk on policy for many, many years -- when people like that begin to have doubts about the mission, there is a shift in sentiment."

The shift will further erode public support for the war, says Feaver, because it makes the possibility of defeat in Iraq seem suddenly fathomable. "People who are arguing [for withdrawal] are doing so on the grounds that this is hopeless, we're losing, we have to cut our losses," he says. "That attitude is toxic for public support, and especially for casualties. Casualties don't have such a big effect when the public thinks we're winning or going to win, but when the public thinks we're going to lose, then causalities are toxic."

Already, public support for the war is fading fast. In a Gallup poll taken from May 2-4, 47 percent of respondents answered no to the question, "All in all, do you think it was worth going to war in Iraq, or not?" A CBS News/New York Times poll from April 23 to April 27 phrases the question differently, asking, "Do you think the result of the war with Iraq was worth the loss of American life and other costs of attacking Iraq, or not worth it?" Fifty-eight percent say it wasn't.

The growing public disillusionment with the war presents unique challenges for both John Kerry and George Bush. So far, they're resisting calls for withdrawal. Bush, who has gambled the success of his presidency on his Iraq adventure and who has little political capital beyond his image as an unswerving war leader, repeats the phrase "stay the course" like some kind of magic incantation. Kerry, worried he'll be accused of being soft on national security, has called for more U.S. troops and has suggested delaying the June 30 hand-over of nominal sovereignty to Iraqis.

But if the demand to pull out snowballs, analysts say, both men may alter their positions, even if they refuse to admit any inconsistency. No one is likely to announce the abandonment of dreams for a stable and decent Iraq. Instead, the bar for what constitutes an acceptable outcome will creep steadily down as public faith in the Iraq mission dissolves.

Clearly, doubts about the war are affecting Bush's popularity. In the latest Gallup poll, 55 percent of respondents disapprove of how he's handling Iraq. In a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 49 percent say that Bush doesn't deserve to be reelected, compared to 45 percent who say he does. "This election is John Kerry's to lose," says John Zogby, president and CEO of the polling firm Zogby International. "An incumbent president with the kind of numbers Bush has is not good."

Still, he says, "Kerry is not off to a great start." Indeed, some Democrats are worried that the president's numbers aren't worse, given the debacles of the last few months.

That could change, says Alan Abramowitz, a professor of political science at Emory University who studies voter behavior. He argues that the real impact of Iraq's deterioration may not be seen for a few months. "These things take time," he says. "Normally you don't see a dramatic decline in a president's approval ratings as a result of some sort of foreign policy setbacks unless it's something really, really dramatic. Even with Jimmy Carter and the Iran hostage crisis, it took a long time for that to adversely affect him. Initially it increased his approval rating. It took months before it really began to be a problem for him. If in three or four months we see continuing negative news stories coming out of Iraq, if there's more violence and this situation with the prison remains a big story, it probably will start to have an effect on Bush's approval rating."

Ironically, though, the rapid deterioration in Iraq also poses hazards for Kerry.

On April 30, Kerry gave a speech about his plans for Iraq at Westminster College. In it, he raised the possibility of sending more American troops in the short term while calling on NATO members and other allies to contribute additional forces and to provide troops. "The immediate goal is to internationalize the transformation of Iraq, to get more foreign forces on the ground to share the risk and reduce the burden on our own forces," he said. "That is the only way to succeed in the mission while ending the sense of an American occupation."

Kerry's problem, though, is that while calling for more American troops may be high-minded, it runs counter to the increasing national uneasiness about Iraq. As for internationalization, it isn't really a viable option, given other nations' reluctance to send their troops into Iraq's chaos. Feaver points out that Kerry can't really offer a significant departure from Bush's current policy in the country, since circumstances have forced the president to reluctantly do many things -- like calling on the U.N. -- that Democrats have called for all along.

"When he sits down with his Democratic advisors, they're very, very smart people, and even they recognize that there doesn't seem to be good alternatives," says Feaver. "I don't think they believe that what the Bush folks are doing is dreadfully wrong and if only we were in control we could make the situation better."

But if the election hinges on voter dissatisfaction with Bush's war, and if Kerry's poll numbers remain flat, pressure on Kerry to abandon his play-it-safe strategy and offer a dramatic alternative could grow. "At some point Kerry's going to have to focus," says Zogby. "He's going to win this as a blue state president, saying, 'The war is wrong, I'm against the war.'"

He has to do that even if it means abandoning his current position, says Zogby. "He's going to have to change, because that's where his voters are at."

And if the trend toward red-state disenchantment with the war continues, Kerry could even pick up votes from Bush backers. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll showed that a remarkable 40 percent of Republicans said they would consider voting for Kerry if the war situation worsened.

Zogby criticizes Kerry's current position as outdated. In his April 30 speech, says Zogby, "he called for a solution from 15 months ago, saying, 'We've got to get our allies involved, we've got to bring the United Nations in. Well, you're not going to persuade Germany and France to come in now. You're not going to persuade the United Nations to get involved now."

But Kerry can't make a really radical move and call for withdrawal, Zogby says. "He can't declare, 'Let's cut and run right now,' because that's tantamount to George McGovern," Zogby says. The White House attack machine has already portrayed Kerry as a spineless flip-flopper: If Kerry were to change his position on Iraq, Republicans would crucify him.

So what should his message be? That Bush is a "miserable failure," says Zogby, and we need to "extricate ourselves from this tragic mistake. We need an Arab summit, we need to build bridges back with all of our allies. There's no easy solution."

Essentially, Zogby is arguing that Kerry should start talking about exit strategy -- that he should offer voters the prospect of ending the war, even if that prospect remains vague.

The fact that Kerry can't offer a quick way out of the war might seem to open up a space for Nader, who could bail out a severely damaged Bush presidency by drawing crucial votes from Kerry. But many liberal Democrats think that Nader will have much less success than he did in the last election. "Ralph will try and take advantage of it, but I don't think he's going to have great success because I think everyone understands the threat of Mr. Bush and the architects of preemption," says Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, a progressive organizing group. "At the end of the day I think Nader will do much worse than he did four years ago."

Borosage's recommendation for Kerry is much like Zogby's. "I think it would be wise to move towards an Eisenhower-type posture of vowing to end the conflict and get American forces out of there," he says. "Americans understand you can't cut and run, but as the situation gets worse, they're going to be looking for someone who says we have to find a way to bring this occupation to the end and recognize reality, that this occupation is a deteriorating situation, that it can't be sustained without generating destruction."

The plan can come later, Borosage says. "The Eisenhower pledge was only that he would go to Korea. It wasn't that he had a detailed plan or terms of agreement," he says.

In the end, it could turn out that none of the presidential candidates wants to stay in Iraq. Charles Heyman, a senior defense analyst at Janes Consultancy Group based in Britain, believes that both the U.S. and England are quietly trying to engineer a quick pullout.

"I'm not saying there's going to be a withdrawal tomorrow morning," Heyman says. "But the situation is deteriorating steadily. There is some evidence that the U.S. government and the British government are talking behind the scenes to both the U.N. and to some of the insurgent groups, both Sunni and Shiite, and it is likely that they will come up with some sort of political agreement between the lot of them which would allow for a much earlier withdrawal."

"The truth is nobody wants it like this," he says. "If we can talk our way out of it, that's a damn sight better than fighting our way out."

Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

MORE FROM Michelle Goldberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

George W. Bush Iraq War John F. Kerry