At a time when a majority of Americans are wondering why we invaded Iraq and worrying about the potential outcome of that conflict, Howard Dean said exactly the wrong thing the other day. By suggesting that the war "cannot be won" by our troops, the Democratic National Committee chairman provided President Bush with a badly needed distraction from his failing policies. His clumsy remark also served to highlight the divisions among congressional Democrats over the war and their difficulty in formulating a plausible alternative, and to isolate him from other party leaders who don't want to be associated with his remarks.
Although Dean now insists that he was quoted "a little out of context" -- and that in fact he believes "we have to win" the war -- his comment in San Antonio Monday offered every conservative pundit and Republican flack the perfect opportunity to portray Democrats as defeatists. Citizens across the political spectrum are well aware of the futility of the Bush strategy and the president's terrible mismanagement of the war, but their doubts about the likelihood of victory are not the same as admitting defeat. Talking about getting out requires very careful attention to national pride and honor, emotions that are easily subject to manipulation by the unscrupulous politicians in power.
Now that public doubt is so widespread, Democrats ought to be able to discuss the realities of the war candidly, without falling into such obvious traps. The question that we face is not whether to withdraw U.S. troops but how and when and under what conditions.
President Bush says we cannot leave until the mission is accomplished, without adequately defining what that means or how many years he expects the mission to require. He cannot explain how he plans to continue supporting this exceptionally costly venture, which is breaking our budgets and damaging our armed forces. And Bush's optimistic projections about the creation of a viable Iraqi army have been contradicted not only by nonpartisan observers but also by his own generals and the vice president of Iraq. Meanwhile, the presence of foreign troops exacerbates the insurgency, attracts fighters from other Arab nations and promotes Islamist extremism among young Muslims.
Many Democrats believe that we should begin to leave soon, regardless of conditions in Iraq and the consequences of a rapid withdrawal. Their proposed timetables for the return of U.S. troops range from six months to two years. The advocates of more rapid withdrawal argue, as Rep. John Murtha has proposed, that American troops should be "redeployed" elsewhere in the region as an "anti-terror strike force," presumably anticipating the collapse of Iraq into civil war and the establishment of Taliban-style terrorist bases in the failed Iraqi state. But such proposals also could mean that after leaving, our troops would eventually be drawn back into an Iraqi civil war that had expanded into a regional conflagration.
So we stay indefinitely or we leave swiftly, risking disaster either way. We owe the Iraqis and ourselves a better solution, and the truth is that so far we haven't tried hard enough to find one. What we should be seeking -- and what Democrats should be advocating -- is what Juan Cole calls "winning smart."
For most Americans, who initially supported the war because of the president's misleading warnings of an imminent threat from Saddam Hussein, our troops have already achieved what they set out to do. Saddam has been ousted and put in the dock for his crimes, while thorough searching has shown that there is no dangerous arsenal in Iraq. Now we need a careful plan to withdraw that creates as little collateral damage as possible.
As I've suggested previously, that requires negotiation of a settlement between the Iraqi government and the Sunni insurgency, perhaps brokered by the United Nations with the encouragement of the U.S. and British governments. Those talks would proceed from a simple premise: The foreign occupiers would set a timetable for departure if the insurgents agreed to stop fighting and pursue their interests without violence.
And for a fraction of the price we are now paying to prosecute the war, we could simultaneously offer substantial financial inducements to the Sunni tribal leaders (who have been encouraging resistance because they have lost status and wealth).
There are many reasons to think such an approach might work.
Independent reports on the insurgents, notably by the International Institute of Strategic Studies, say that they are motivated mainly by the presence of foreign troops on Iraqi soil. That is why prolonging the occupation indefinitely is so destructive, and why a conditional commitment to leave might induce many of the insurgents to talk peace. The Iraqi government evidently agrees, because its leaders have publicly suggested that they are willing to talk to the insurgents and want a timetable for U.S. withdrawal.
Even if most of the insurgents sit down to negotiate, however, there will surely be a "rejectionist" faction led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his fellow Islamist militants. But that doesn't really matter. While the occupation now unites the disparate forces of the resistance, most Iraqis regard Zarqawi as a foreigner and an enemy. Once the native Sunni insurgents enter into a political settlement, he and the other Islamists will soon be isolated -- and eliminated. That would represent a decisive defeat for al-Qaida inflicted at the hands of fellow Muslims.
A better outcome for the civilized world is difficult to imagine.