Iraq: Go for the lesser evil

Defenders of US president George W Bush’s surge strategy in Iraq no longer talk about creating a democratic Iraq that will transform the region; but they still talk about staying the course and doing what it takes to achieve some vaguer benign goal. Opponents go to the other end of the spectrum, however, and say that the best thing is for the US and its allies to get out of Iraq as quickly as possible, frequently without regard to the practicalities or wider consequences.

In their different ways, both surgers and withdrawers need to have their assumptions more critically examined in the light of today’s realities. The White House’s recent claim that the surge is developing satisfactorily is mocked by the very modest security advances and the almost total absence of political advances. As General Wesley Clark said last week, the US would have had to triple the number of troops on the ground to have the effect that the administration seeks as its goal. But it does not follow that outright withdrawal is therefore the only alternative worth considering. Or that it is politically popular: only 36% of Americans want all the troops removed from Iraq, while support for the war has actually increased in the latest US polls.

That is why there is in Washington increasing examination of other strategies. It is some years since the words “third way” were heard in the land, but that is the title of an investigation into partial withdrawal options now being carried out by the US House of Representatives armed services committee. American newspapers and magazines have also carried detailed and thoughtful articles on these subjects — including last week’s Time magazine.

Partial withdrawal sounds beguiling, centrist and moderate. Yet you only have to look at what these third way strategies might mean on the ground to see that they are not as attractive as they sound. Stephen Biddle, from the Council on Foreign Relations, identified four partial withdrawal options — all of which would reduce US numbers by half — in his evidence to the congressional committee: withdrawal towards training and support of the Iraqis, withdrawal to guarding Iraq’s borders, withdrawal into a focused mission on counter-terrorism, and withdrawal into Kurdistan.

The Kurdistan option is eloquently expounded by Peter Galbraith in the current New York Review of Books, but Biddle himself is not optimistic about any of the four choices. He thinks they are all self-defeating and unsustainable. “Partial withdrawal would not end American casualties,” he says. “But it would make it even less likely that the lives we do lose would be lost for any purpose, or in exchange for any improvement in the future of Iraq.” If that is so, then the choice may after all be between the extreme alternatives of sustained military commitment and total withdrawal.

But only because one of these is the elusive least worst option, not because it is a good or wise policy. There is an overwhelming case for the Pentagon and the White House to set out the full and true contingency options.

It would be reassuring if the British PM, Gordon Brown, were to take such a message to Bush at Camp David this weekend. And even more surprising if Bush were to listen. Bush started this war on the basis of inadequate planning. It looks as if he will end it in the same way too. — The Guardian