The only way out

All the plans the Democrats have offered on Iraq rely on wishful thinking. Here's one that might actually work.

Published December 3, 2005 7:51PM (EST)

House Democrats want a "timetable" for American withdrawal from Iraq. Senate Democrats want a "year of progress" on Iraq. Senate Republicans want quarterly progress reports about Iraq. The White House offers a glossy brochure and a Web site as the U.S. "plan for victory" in Iraq.

No wonder the American people -- who know that the president has lied to them repeatedly about this costly bloodshed -- have lost faith in George W. Bush, his party and his war, without gaining confidence in the opposition. Both sides are squandering the opportunity for a decent, honorable and constructive conclusion to the war because they will not face the realities honestly.

The president's recent speech on the war continued his execrable record of mendacity, especially with his exaggerated claims about the Iraqi role in the battle of Tal Afar and his insistence that the Iraqi armed forces are well on the way to independence. Two months ago, his own commanding officer, Gen. John Abizaid, testified in the Senate that after two years of supposed training, only one of a hundred Iraqi battalions is capable of operating on its own. One of a hundred! If the general spoke truthfully, how many decades would the Iraqis need before they could operate alone?

Worse, the president failed to admit what every officer and expert knows: The liberation of Iraq from Saddam Hussein has turned into an occupation that is provoking resistance among the Sunni Arabs and attracting jihadi fighters from all over the region. Even Sen. Joe Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee and a supporter of the war, admits that "the hard truth is that our large military presence in Iraq is ... increasingly part of the problem," although he also says we must maintain troops there as "the only guarantor against chaos."

Those remarks reflect a reality that many leading Democrats, particularly those who have supported the war, like Hillary Clinton and Joe Lieberman, have been reluctant to confront. But while Biden is beginning to articulate what is wrong, he and his Democratic colleagues remain as clueless as the president about what to do.

In a speech the other day, Biden proposed a complex, four-part solution that includes a "contact group" of allied nations to encourage cooperation among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, a better Iraqi civil administration, a more effective training regime for Iraqi military units, and a more effective counterinsurgency strategy. This is mostly wishful thinking, mostly a more verbose version of Lieberman's usual happy talk.

These senators' colleague John Kerry, who has often proved how hard it is for him to think or speak clearly about Iraq ever since last year's presidential campaign, has not made much progress either. He wants a schedule, too: "a target schedule by which you begin to turn over provinces, by which you specifically begin to shift responsibility" to the Iraqi military. He complains that without such a "concrete" plan, "a lot of people fear that it's going to be more of the same." With such a plan, it will also be more of the same.

As for Clinton, she is busy trying to convince New Yorkers that she has always been critical of the president's conduct of the war, including his decision to invade. She has had some difficulty explaining why we didn't know this sooner. She seems to think that if the Iraqi elections proceed as planned, we will be able to start withdrawing -- which is yet more wishful thinking.

As for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Rep. John Murtha, and the House Democrats who have endorsed Murtha's call for withdrawing most troops before next summer, they have offered no realistic assessment of what that would mean for U.S. interests or for the Iraqis themselves.

What both the president and his hapless critics have refused to acknowledge is that we are in a bind. We cannot provide enough troops to pacify Iraq -- indeed, we can scarcely maintain the current level of troop strength for an additional year. We cannot train the Iraqi army and security forces quickly and thoroughly enough to pacify their country before we will be forced to reduce our own commitment. And we cannot leave abruptly without an unacceptable risk of civil war that eventually widens into a dangerous regional conflict involving Iran, Jordan, Turkey and possibly Israel.

There is a decent and honorable way out that has been addressed by the Iraqis themselves but that no American politician, not even the brave Murtha, is willing to mention: negotiations with the Sunni insurgents. The elected Iraqi government, representing a population eager for us to leave, should begin talks with rebels who are willing to discuss laying down their arms, in exchange for an orderly and scheduled American departure. That is the only way to transform the U.S. occupation from a stick into a carrot -- and to extract some kind of victory from what is becoming a strategic disaster.

By Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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