For Iraq, the El Salvador option -- again

Plan B sounds awfully familiar, and not just because we've lived through it before.

Published March 12, 2007 3:28PM (EDT)

When Condoleezza Rice took to Capitol Hill in January to sell the president's plan to send more troops to Iraq, she resisted all efforts to discuss what the administration might have in mind if the "surge" didn't work. When John Kerry asked her about a fallback plan, she said: "I don't think you go to Plan B. You work with Plan A. You give it the best possibility of success." At another point in her marketing efforts, Rice declared: "It's bad policy to speculate on what you'll do if a plan fails when you're trying to make a plan work."

We can certainly understand her point: We've deferred all of our thinking about saving for retirement until we see if we can make this whole winning-the-lottery plan work. And that's the thing about Plan B's: They're seldom as attractive as Plan A's.

Which brings us to Plan B for Iraq. As the Los Angeles Times reports today, military planners have indeed begun working on a "fallback strategy for Iraq," and it looks a lot like ... El Salvador.

Now, you might be saying to yourself, "El Salvador isn't exactly the sort of model I'd like to be following." And you'd be right about that. As the Times puts it ever so gently, "Some academics have argued" that U.S. military advisors in El Salvador "turned a blind eye to government-backed death squads, or even aided them." But at least some military planners say that an El Salvador-style approach -- which is to say, relying on thousands of U.S. military advisors rather than 150,000 or so U.S. troops -- is the only way to make the Iraq war work now.

"This part of the world has an allergy against foreign presence," a senior Pentagon official tells the Times in a revelation that shouldn't be one. John Waghelstein, who teaches at the Naval War College and has advised Gen. David Petraeus on Iraq, says that "less is better" when you're "dealing with a host country." And one Pentagon advisor tells the paper that the El Salvador idea has significant support from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, adding that "no one I know thinks the surge is the answer."

Yes, but are military advisors the answer, either? The Council on Foreign Relations' Stephen Biddle tells the Times that it's just another half-step that won't work: Either send a lot more troops to Iraq, he says, or get out entirely.

If this all sounds a little familiar, that's because it is. Newsweek previously reported that the Pentagon, worried that the war isn't going well, "is intensively debating an option that dates back to a still-secret strategy in the Reagan administration's battle against the leftist guerrilla insurgency in El Salvador in the early 1980s." That report came out in January -- of 2005.

By Tim Grieve

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

MORE FROM Tim Grieve

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

Iraq War War Room