Escalation vs. withdrawal

Both plans have worst-case scenarios, but only one of them puts 21,000 more U.S. troops at risk.

Published January 12, 2007 8:50PM (EST)

Joe Lieberman said today that people who oppose the president's escalation of the war in Iraq "have an obligation to offer a plan that moves toward the goal of maximizing the chances of success in Iraq." It's a standard line of argument now for pro-escalation politicians like Lieberman and John McCain. But what the escalationists don't acknowledge is that the opponents of the president's plan have already done what they're asking of them.

True, some who have called for an immediate or a phased withdrawal from Iraq have done so based on a fatalistic -- but not necessarily faulty -- view that Iraq is going to hell no matter what happens, and that there's no reason for any more American troops to die in the process. But most escalation opponents in Congress have argued that drawing down American troops isn't just a matter of giving up on Iraq; rather, they say, it is the best way to "maximize the chance for success" there.

As Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi argued in their letter to Bush last week, a phased withdrawal would "make the Iraqi political leadership aware that our commitment is not open ended, that we cannot resolve their sectarian problems, and that only they can find the political resolution required to stabilize Iraq." Sending more troops, they said, would do exactly the opposite: It would "undermine our efforts to get the Iraqis to take responsibility for their own future."

It's not exactly a new argument. It's the same one George W. Bush used to make for not sending more troops to Iraq. ("Sending more Americans would undermine our strategy of encouraging Iraqis to take the lead in this fight.") And it's the same one Gen. John Abizaid gave the Senate back in November when McCain asked about sending more troops to Iraq. ("We want the Iraqis to do more. It's easy for the Iraqis to rely upon to us do this work. I believe that more American forces prevent the Iraqis from doing more, from taking more responsibility for their own future.")

Bush and Abizaid seem to have abandoned that theory; Bush said everything changed after the bombing of the Golden Mosque in February 2006, and Gen. Peter Pace said today that Abizaid has told him he's good with a troop escalation now. But back when Bush was arguing against sending more troops to Iraq, Lieberman was saying that the president's plan for Iraq was a "good one." So perhaps Lieberman is the one with an obligation now -- an obligation to explain how the theory underlying the president's "good plan" back in 2005 is somehow all wrong today.

As for McCain, he said today that escalation opponents have an obligation to say what they think the "consequences" of withdrawal would be. Defense Secretary Robert Gates offered his view of the consequences of "failure" in Iraq: "an emboldened and strengthened Iran, a safe haven and base of operations for jihadist networks in the heart of the Middle East, a humiliating defeat in the overall campaign against violent extremism worldwide, and an undermining of the credibility of the United States."

But as Jim Webb told Gates this afternoon, that parade of horribles is already marching past the reviewing stand. "In many ways," Webb said, "those have been the results of the invasions and occupation." (Gates had admitted as much, at least on one point, earlier in the day when he said that the Iranians have felt free to cause more problems in Iran "as they have gained confidence that we're in trouble there.")

Webb, whose son is serving in the Marines in Iraq, said that "it's not really true that an American withdrawal in and of itself would be catastrophic." After all, he said, "I think we all agree -- I hope -- that we will eventually withdraw." The only question, he said, is what the "circumstances" will be when that day comes. Gates agreed: "Whether or not our withdrawal is a catastrophe will depend very much on the circumstances under which we withdraw," he said, "and our goal is to eventually withdraw."

So everyone agrees that the ultimate goal -- or one of them, anyway -- is the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Everyone agrees that success in Iraq will come -- if it comes at all -- when the Iraqi government takes the political steps it needs to take. The question, then, is really one of sequencing. Escalation opponents say the Iraqis won't make any hard political decisions as long as they know that our troops will be there to protect them. Escalation supporters say the Iraqis can't take those steps unless we send even more troops first.

It's not unreasonable for McCain to argue that escalation opponents must be honest about the worst-case scenarios that could arise after a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. But neither is it unreasonable for escalation opponents to demand that the Bush administration say clearly what it intends to do if Nouri al-Maliki's government reneges on its latest promises and the "new way forward" doesn't work. Both sides are engaged in leaps of faith here. Only one of them puts an additional 21,000 American troops in the line of fire.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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