A Timetable isn't an Exit Strategy -
Op ED - NYT Editorial Board
As America’s military experience in Iraq grows ever more nightmarish, it is becoming clear that President Bush’s strategy comes down to this: Keep holding to a failing course for the next 29 months and leave it to the next administration to clean up the mess.
That abdication of responsibility cannot be allowed to continue at the expense of American lives, military readiness and international influence. With the Republican majority in Congress moving in perpetual lock step behind the White House, the job of pressing the issue has been dumped in the laps of the Democrats. Unfortunately, they have their own version of reality avoidance. It involves pretending that the nightmare can be ended by adopting a timetable for a phased withdrawal of American troops.
Mr. Bush’s cheerleading encourages the illusion that it is just a matter of time and American support before Iraq evolves into a stable democracy. The Democratic timetable spins a different fantasy: that if the Iraqis are told that American troops will be leaving in stages, at specific dates, their government will rise to the occasion and create its own security forces to maintain order.
The Iraqi government has not failed to develop adequate police and military forces of its own because it lacks the incentive. It has failed to do so because it is weak and divided, because its people are frightened and because the strongest leaders in the country are the men who control sectarian militias. A phased withdrawal by itself would simply leave the American soldiers who remain behind in graver danger, and hasten what looks like an inevitable descent into civil war.
Democrats are embracing the withdrawal option because it sounds good on the surface and allows them to avoid a more far-reaching discussion that might expose their party’s own foreign policy divisions. Most of all, they want an election-year position that maximizes the president’s weakness without exposing their candidates to criticism. But they are doing nothing to help the public understand the grim options we face.
The only responsible way out of Iraq involves all the things President Bush refused to consider on the way in. That means enlisting help from some of the same Arab neighbors and European allies whose opinions and suggestions were scornfully ignored before the invasion. Getting their assistance would be a humbling experience. Americans may feel the war is going badly, but they have not been prepared to acknowledge failure.
America’s allies have an interest in not seeing Iraq turn into a hive of terrorists and a font of regional instability. However, before other nations become involved they would certainly insist on a laundry list of American concessions, from a share in war-related business for their contractors to an all-out United States push for a renewed peace process among Israel, the Palestinians and their neighbors.
A serious plan for disengagement from Iraq is not well tailored to the campaign trail. Real withdrawal will be messy and unpleasant. Even under the best of circumstances, it could well end in disaster. But the country cannot afford another election cycle of bipartisan evasions.