Should we stay or should we go?

Surprisingly, a bipartisan consensus is emerging for bringing home our exhausted troops, yet President Bush clings to his chimera of total victory. Inside the escalating debate over Iraq.

Published December 9, 2005 11:05AM (EST)

One evening late in February of 2003, a few weeks before the United States launched its first strike on Baghdad, George W. Bush gave a speech to the nation explaining the many great and good reasons to oust Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. The president's address was typically defiant and certain; hindsight tells us it was also almost entirely wrong. Bush's key rhetorical points -- on Saddam's dangerous arsenal, his links with terrorist groups, and the speed with which the U.S. would rebuild Iraq in the aftermath of war -- now sound almost embarrassingly outdated, like the refrain from a 1980s one-hit wonder.

Yet one aspect of Bush's 2003 speech -- his explanation for how long the U.S. would occupy Iraq -- is strangely current even today. "We will remain in Iraq as long as necessary, and not a day more," Bush told the nation that night. Almost three years later, despite all that's gone wrong in Iraq, this vague stance -- staying in Iraq as long as Bush considers it necessary -- still remains the administration's policy for determining how and when to end the war.

Indeed, last week, the White House even featured this 2003 quote as the epigraph for its "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq," a 35-page document the administration released as part of an effort to rehabilitate public support for the war. In the document, as well as in a speech Bush gave to a class of midshipmen at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., the president explained the benchmarks he'd use to determine when troops could come home from Iraq. But his overarching message was the same as it ever was: We'll stay in Iraq as long as we need to and not any longer -- a message that many experts read as a dodge, an attempt to paper over a real debate over what we should, and should not, be doing in Iraq.

After all, nearly everyone wants to stay in Iraq as long as necessary -- where people differ is in what constitutes "necessary." If you call the foreign policy establishment in Washington these days, you'll get a host of answers. While the president and a handful of other prominent leaders (Hillary Clinton) appear to have no plan on Iraq, it seems that just about everyone else in power does. The strategies span the gamut. Some advocate preserving the status quo (many Republicans, and Joe Lieberman); others call for major tactical and strategic changes, but no necessary troop withdrawal (Wes Clark, John McCain); some call for a significant troop drawdown over the next couple of years, starting as soon as next month (Joe Biden, John Kerry and possibly Clinton); and still others call for something more, something approaching a quick and immediate pullback of most personnel there (Nancy Pelosi, Howard Dean and possibly half the Democrats in the House).

What's surprising is that, despite these various strategies, the Iraq debate actually seems to be converging upon a single vision for ending the war. Removing large numbers of U.S. troops from the country has emerged as a sensible, rather than a radical, plan: Many experts now believe that the U.S. presence in Iraq is fueling a large part of the insurgency, and that withdrawing troops could actually help make that country more secure. Pragmatic considerations -- elections (in Iraq and in this country), the economic costs of the war, and the increasing strains on the military -- are also forcing all sides to think, or at least talk about thinking about, ways to leave Iraq.

Notwithstanding quick-withdrawal proposals favored by some leaders, many Democrats reportedly fear being seen as weak on defense in the run-up to the 2006 vote, and appear to be collectively choosing a moderate plan for Iraq, one that calls for a gradual -- rather than an immediate -- withdrawal. Republicans, meanwhile, face the opposite political problem, as their "stay the course" message is ringing hollow with Americans. That explains why most Senate Republicans joined with Democrats in November to pass Sen. John Warner's amendment calling on the White House to "explain to Congress and the American people its strategy for the successful completion of the mission in Iraq." The amendment labeled 2006 a "year of transition" for the war.

Much credit for this new movement is due to Rep. John Murtha, the conservative Pennsylvania Democrat and Vietnam veteran who had long supported the war, but who suddenly declared his opposition to the fight last month. Murtha's call to "redeploy" the troops spurred many other leaders to offer their own plans -- and, more than that, Murtha's strategy has emerged as the template for many exit plans, even if the authors of those plans don't acknowledge Murtha as an inspiration.

"I think they're all moving toward the same point," says Lawrence Korb, who served as an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, and who is now a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress. "You look at John Warner's amendment and it's not all that different from what Jack Murtha has been saying." Korb says the reason for the convergence goes beyond politics. Many congressional leaders, he says, worry that the military can't sustain the 160,000 troops we now have in Iraq. The Army, Murtha declared last week, is "broken, worn out" and "living hand to mouth." Biden, Kerry and other moderates have been saying much the same thing, if in less astringent terms.

Military reality almost guarantees a significant drawdown of troops in the coming year -- as few as 30,000 by some estimates, and as many as 80,000 by others. After the Iraqi parliamentary elections on Dec. 15, one scenario goes, the Iraqi government may ask the U.S. to reduce its presence, and the U.S. will then begin a large redeployment. The process would look not very different from what Murtha called for, with the bulk of the forces coming back in 2006, and the rest in 2007. Under most plans, a large contingent of troops would remain near Iraq -- in Kuwait or in the Gulf -- poised to strike quickly at terrorist targets.

The wild card in this picture, though, is Bush. As Lee Feinstein, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, points out, Bush's goals in Iraq are "maximalist": The president doesn't just expect success in Iraq, he wants "complete victory," and to eradicate the insurgency and build a democratic state that's a beacon to its neighbors. Bush is, furthermore, immune to the political pressure that other leaders in Washington face -- he doesn't have to run again -- and it's not clear whether he and his defense establishment understand the difficulty of keeping the military stretched so thin for so long. Then there's the scary stuff. In the New Yorker last week, Seymour Hersh pointed to another reason Bush may feel compelled to keep fighting in Iraq -- his religious sense that "God put me here" to fight.

Taken together, Bush's views on Iraq may mean that even if Congress and the foreign policy establishment muddles toward some halfway sensible solution, the president will just keep going the way he wants. "This president has a mind-set that says that we would have won in Vietnam if only we'd stuck with it," says Rick Barton, a post-conflict reconstruction expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "I think he's going to try to stick with it here."

Until recently, calling for a large-scale withdrawal of American troops from Iraq was thought to be politically off-limits for most in Congress, especially those moderate or conservative Democrats who once supported the war (liberals, such as Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, have been calling for withdrawal for some time). The mood changed on Nov. 17, when Murtha strayed from the pack. In an emotional statement, he declared the war to be all but lost. The U.S., he said, can't accomplish anything further in Iraq; the military "has done everything that has been asked of them," and the best course of action now was to "bring them home."

Murtha pointed to two main factors that caused his turnaround on the war. A Vietnam veteran with deep ties to the military, Murtha was primarily concerned, he said, that the war was debilitating the military. Experts say that the only way to keep as many troops as we have in Iraq any longer is to extend deployment times, or call people back for their third, fourth and fifth tours, a course that many worry will ruin the all-volunteer forces. Murtha said he'd been hearing these fears from the generals themselves; many in the Pentagon, he said, believe the war may break the Army.

Murtha's assessment of the dour mood in the Pentagon jibes with published reports and with analysts' observations. "The generals who remember Vietnam start to see people coming back for the third and fourth time and they begin to say, 'Wait a minute, this is not good,'" the Center for American Progress's Korb says.

Murtha also feared that the military was only exacerbating the insurgency. "Our troops have become the primary target," he said in his speech. "They are united against U.S. forces and we have become a catalyst for violence. U.S. troops are the common enemy of the Sunnis, Saddamists and foreign jihadists." Removing troops would remove a main insurgent cause and compel Iraqi security forces to begin looking out for themselves, he said.

Given these factors, Murtha said he saw no choice but to call for a "redeployment" in the force. What he meant by this was somewhat murky -- he didn't specify where he wanted to redeploy the troops to. Most observers took his comments to mean a full pullback of all troops to the United States -- "cut and run," as critics put it. But as Slate's Fred Kaplan has pointed out, Murtha hasn't advocated bringing all troops home, and instead wants to keep a sizable force "on the periphery" of Iraq, from where it could monitor, and if necessary intervene in, the country.

The Murtha plan resembles -- and may have been inspired by -- one put forward in October by Korb and Brian Katulis at the Center for American Progress. They call for redeploying 80,000 troops in Iraq during 2006 -- 20,000 would be sent to Afghanistan, 14,000 to Kuwait, and the rest (all the Guard and Reserve troops, more than 40,000) would come back to the United States. Then, in 2007, the rest of the American force in Iraq would come home.

"By the end of 2007," Korb and Katulis write, "the only US military forces in Iraq would be a small Marine contingent to protect the US embassy, a small group of military advisors to the Iraqi Government, and counterterrorist units that works closely with Iraqi security forces. This presence, along with the forces in Kuwait and at sea in the Persian Gulf area will be sufficient to conduct strikes coordinated with Iraqi forces against any terrorist camps and enclaves that may emerge and deal with any major external threats to Iraq." (A PDF version of their paper is available here.)

If this careful withdrawal is what Murtha meant to call for, it's not what most observers took from his speech. Murtha's rhetoric emphasized bringing troops home immediately (the version of his speech on his Web site renders this phrase in all caps: "IT IS TIME TO BRING THEM HOME"). Even many in his own party thought Murtha to be calling for something more precipitous, and did not immediately endorse his proposal. Still, Murtha's speech opened the floodgates, and put pressure on other Democrats, not to mention on Republicans, to discuss their ideas on Iraq.

Within a week of Murtha's statement, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware -- who, like Murtha, had supported the war -- put forward his own plan on Iraq in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. He began by politely disagreeing with Americans like Murtha, whom he characterized as having concluded that "we cannot salvage Iraq." "I share their frustration," Biden said. "But I'm not there yet. I still believe we can preserve our fundamental security interests in Iraq as we begin to redeploy our forces."

But though he characterized his ideas as more moderate than Murtha's, Biden's proposals, and his view of the fundamental challenges in Iraq, looked quite similar to those of the Pennsylvania congressman. Like Murtha, Biden sees the U.S. presence as fueling the insurgency. "A liberation is increasingly felt as an occupation," as he put it. He also agrees with Murtha's assessment that the troops are stretched too thin, a situation that means "it is virtually certain we will redeploy a significant number of forces from Iraq in 2006 and more will follow in 2007."

Indeed Biden's bottom line sounds pretty much like Korb's plan: "Here is my conviction," he said. "In 2006, American troops will begin to leave Iraq in large numbers. By the end of the year, I believe we will have redeployed at least 50,000 troops. In 2007, a significant number of the remaining 100,000 American soldiers will follow."

A number of other moderates have endorsed similar proposals. John Kerry, who spoke at Georgetown in October, even before Murtha came forward with his plan, shares the idea that "our military presence in vast and visible numbers has become part of the problem, not the solution." He calls for 20,000 troops to be withdrawn from Iraq "over the course of the holidays," and the bulk of the force to be pulled back by the end of 2006.

Hillary Clinton has steadfastly refused to say exactly what she thinks about the situation in Iraq. "I disagree with those who believe we should pull out, and I disagree with those who believe we should stay without end," she unhelpfully said over the weekend. But in a letter to constituents released late last month, even she seemed to endorse the pull-out-slowly plan.

''I believe we are at a critical point with the Dec. 15 elections that should, if successful, allow us to start bringing home our troops in the coming year, while leaving behind a smaller contingent in safer areas with greater intelligence and quick strike capabilities,'' she wrote. ''I call on the president both for such a plan and for a full and honest accounting of the failures of intelligence -- something we owe not only to those killed and wounded and their families, but to all Americans.''

Just because Democrats seem to be aligning on a plan does not, of course, mean the plan is the right one -- and there are many critics of the emerging Democratic strategy. The White House and other Republicans charge, for one, that any announced pullout plan will doom the effort in Iraq. As soon as we declare our intentions, the administration contends, the insurgents will decide to wait us out until we're gone, and then make a strike to take over the nation. There is, too, the legitimate question of who will provide security in Iraq once the U.S. leaves. As James Fallows points out in this month's Atlantic, Iraqi security forces are nowhere near ready to patrol their own country; they're improving, but not as fast as we need them to.

Some observers even disagree with Murtha's and Biden's fundamental charge that keeping large numbers of troops in Iraq could damage the Army. Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution, notes that if one considers all the recent shortfalls caused by depressed recruitment, "you're in the range of 30,000 fewer troops than where we'd like to be. That's 3 percent. Even if you assume it's going to keep getting worse, it's not by itself a showstopper. You can say we're going to be 4 percent below where we're supposed to be, and that is a serious problem. But we're also facing a serious problem of trying to win in Iraq."

"I think he's wrong," O'Hanlon adds of Murtha's contention that generals in the Army see the situation as untenable. "Very few of them go to the point that Jack Murtha does. People in the Army don't say that the country's overriding national security goal is to avoid breaking the Army. They say we want to prevail in Iraq."

In an Op-Ed in Tuesday's New York Times, Wesley Clark, the former NATO commander and Democratic presidential candidate, also rejected the idea that the military can't maintain a large deployment any longer. "Yes, our military forces are dangerously overstretched. Recruiting and retention are suffering; among retired officers, there is deep concern that the Bush administration's attitude on the treatment of detainees has jeopardized not only the safety of our troops but the moral purpose of our effort," he wrote. "Still, none of this necessitates a pullout until the job is done."

Then there are political considerations for Democrats. To be sure, the war is presently deeply unpopular; polls show that a majority of Americans disapprove of the president's handling of the situation, and believe we were wrong to invade Iraq in the first place. At the same time, however, the public shows no clear, overwhelming appetite for withdrawing from Iraq immediately.

In a recent Time survey, 47 percent of respondents said they thought we should leave Iraq over the next 12 months regardless of the situation there -- but a large number, 40 percent, thought we should wait for a stable government first, and 8 percent said we should put more troops in the country. The latest Gallup poll, meanwhile, showed 59 percent of the country willing to withdraw from Iraq only "when certain goals are met" there, with 35 percent advocating withdrawal "by a specific date." A CBS News/New York Times poll released on Thursday showed that 58 percent of the public wants a timetable for withdrawal. But the Times noted, "36 percent said that if their representative called for immediate withdrawal, they would be less inclined to vote to re-elect him in November. Twenty-one percent said such a request would make them more likely to vote for a candidate; 40 percent said it would have no effect."

If Democrats adopt a strategy for pulling out too quickly -- and especially if they adopt the do-it-now rhetoric of Murtha and Pelosi, not to mention Howard Dean -- some worry that the public might conclude, once again, that the party is weak on national security issues. "If we get a lot more of Nancy Pelosi and John Murtha advocating immediate withdrawal, all we need is one or two months of good news [from Iraq] for the public to conclude that Democrats don't have a backbone in the face of adversity," O'Hanlon, who identifies himself as a hawkish Democrat, says. "I am nervous that many Democrats may sense political opportunity here and may overplay their hand. Then Republicans can again trumpet their steadfastness, which may sound like a liability now but could be a virtue by next fall."

But if there are pitfalls to the emerging Democratic proposal, there are also advantages. The main one is this: It's a plan. There's order, logic and coherence to it. And that's a lot more than can be said of the White House's "stay the course" proposal, which is inconsistent in how it defines the mission in Iraq, and vague about the time and energy we might need to accomplish that mission. Are we fighting in Iraq merely to bring stability there -- what John McCain has called a "flawed but functioning democracy" -- or are we looking to vanquish our terrorist foes once and for all (as the president suggested in his speech last week)? Bush can't seem to pick one of those two options.

Feinstein, of the Council on Foreign Relations, points out that Bush's speech did contain a few pragmatic prescriptions for dealing with the insurgency. For instance, Bush said, "My commanders tell me that as Iraqi forces become more capable, the mission of our forces in Iraq will continue to change. We will continue to shift from providing security and conducting operations against the enemy nationwide, to conducting more specialized operations targeted at the most dangerous terrorists. We will increasingly move out of Iraqi cities, reduce the number of bases from which we operate, and conduct fewer patrols and convoys." As the Brookings Institution's Ivo Daalder has noted, Bush's proposal is similar to Murtha's -- they're both arguing for our forces to take a peripheral role as Iraqi troops stand up and assume control.

But Feinstein says that Bush's ideology seemed to get in the way of pragmatism. At other points in his speech, Bush appeared dreamily ideological, a man on a mission, undeterred by reality. No serious observer of the war can argue that it's keeping Americans safer, yet Bush pushed that line repeatedly. "By fighting these terrorists in Iraq, Americans in uniform are defeating a direct threat to the American people," he said. "Against this adversary, there is only one effective response: We will never back down. We will never give in. And we will never accept anything less than complete victory."

"The president has chosen to invoke the war on terrorism as a rallying point for the war in Iraq," Feinstein says. "I think we should be content just to leave Iraq better than we found it -- but they obviously made a deliberate decision to maximize this," to reach for an ideological goal -- a terrorist-free, shining Iraq -- rather than something more modest.

Bush also misses the point that Democrats, and just about every analyst, understand about the U.S. presence in Iraq -- that at this late stage in the war, the occupation is a main catalyst for the insurgency. Analysts cite polls showing large numbers of Iraqis -- as many as 80 percent -- who say they oppose the presence of foreign troops there. Meanwhile, according to military assessments, the largest group of insurgents aren't from al-Qaida or from across the border, but are instead native Iraqis who despise the U.S. presence. "These people are fighting to get us out of there," Korb says of the insurgency; once we leave, or announce our intentions to leave, their reason for fighting will have vanished.

Barton, of CSIS, agrees. "I think the key to a successful insurgency is the domestic cover they get by fighting against the occupation," he says. "The minute we say we're willing to leave," many of those who are fighting the occupation will have nothing to fight. The rest of the insurgents will then be "on notice. You'll be shrinking their market and shrinking their space."

Barton says this strategy would be especially effective if it were proposed by Iraqis, by the politicians who come into power after the elections next week. Given the overwhelming Iraqi distaste for the occupation, a truly sovereign, democratic Iraqi government would have no choice but to call on the U.S. to start to leave, he says. And if it does, the move would instantly legitimize the leadership. "Right now they're Green-Zone politicians," Barton says of the Iraqi government. But if they call for a negotiated withdrawal and if the U.S. listens, "that will be the most radical thing that's happened in the Middle East" -- an Arab government forcing the U.S. to change its international policy. "If that happens, then the details become almost superfluous," he says.

Such a move, too, would serve to "concentrate their minds" on security issues, Barton says of the Iraqi politicians. If they know they won't have the U.S. to protect them at some point down the line, they'll work hard to build up their forces. Moreover, if the Iraqi soldiers realize they're fighting for a sovereign nation rather than a quasi-American protectorate, they'll have a greater incentive to stand up and fight.

As Barton describes it, a U.S. withdrawal prompted by Iraqis may be our best hope for saving ourselves, not to mention Iraq itself, from disaster. "And what's the alternative?" he asks. "Do you believe we can continue to grind away at it like we have been? It's not going to get any better with the model we have in place."

But does Bush realize that? All signs point to no. "We have a commander in chief who when he gets into trouble likes to step on the accelerator," Barton says. "And when you're in the mud, that doesn't work."

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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