The Way Out

In our June issue, Flynt Leverett penned a memo to the incoming president laying out the options for an exit from Iraq. Below, several prominent progressives respond and offer their own suggestions.

Peter W. Galbraith
Lawrence J. Korb
Suzanne Nossel and Charles A. Kupchan

Plus, Flynt Leverett responds.

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Peter W. Galbraith: An Internal Solution for an Internal Problem

Flynt Leverett is exactly right in his analysis in the shortcomings of Bush's Iraq strategy and the alternatives put forward by his mainstream Democratic critiques.

Having inadvertently broken up Iraq in April 2003, the administration has been trying since then to recentralize the country. It has been a fool's errand (implemented at times by fools), not that President Bush has noticed.

Bush repeatedly says that the Iraqi people have chosen national unity, although they voted twice in 2005 almost entirely for ethnic or sectarian parties. The goal of the current surge is to buy enough time so that Iraq's leaders can make the compromises necessary to bring the disaffected Sunnis into the political process which in turn will isolate the Sunni and Shiite extremists and ultimately bring stability, if not peace.

The Democrats, while rightly caustic on the subject of the administration's competence, have bought into the notion that meeting benchmarks for reconciliation -- an oil law, constitutional changes, relaxing de-Baathification -- will improve the internal situation in Iraq. As Leverett points out, Iraq's Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds have not reached compromises "not because they are unwilling to do so, but because they are unable to do so."

Proposed changes in Iraq's constitution are a case in point. Every change sought by the Sunnis (with support from some Shiites) comes at the expense of Kurdistan's autonomy. Even if Kurdistan's leaders could be cajoled into ceding some powers to the central government (such as a power to impose taxes which Baghdad does not now have), this would be overwhelmingly rejected by the independence-minded Kurdish public. With characteristic lack of foresight, the administration is pushing ahead with constitutional revisions, seemingly oblivious to the consequences of the entire package being defeated in the required referendum, where the three purely Kurdish governorates exercise a veto.

In fact, few (and possibly none) of the benchmarks will be met by the September deadline in the congressional appropriations legislation. But, even if all the benchmarks were met, it would not make any difference. The Sunni-Shiite civil war is not being fought over sharing oil revenues, employment for a few Sunni ex-Baathists, or changes to the constitution. Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites have irreconcilable views about the nature of their country. The Shiites believe their majority and electoral victories entitle them -- as Shiites -- to rule Iraq. The Sunnis, who rightly see themselves as the creators of modern Iraq, cannot accept that Iraq is a Shiite state ruled by religious parties installed by the United States and aligned (as they see it) with Iraq's national enemy, Iran. This divide has been impossibly exacerbated by a civil war in which Sunni insurgents have blown up thousands of Shiites simply for being Shiites and where government-sponsored death squads kill Sunnis for being Sunnis.

Meanwhile, the Kurds have created what is -- except for formal recognition -- an independent state with its own government, army, and separate economy. And it is not just that all Kurds want independence. Most hate Iraq as a country that they never wanted to join, that repressed them for its entire 80-year history, and that committed genocide against them in the 1980s. There is nothing that will ever reconcile the Iraqi Kurds to Iraq, even if their leaders make rhetorical concessions to national unity that they have no intention of implementing.

Iraq's security forces are, as Leverett points out, as sectarian as the country itself. The national army and police are predominantly Shiite, serving Iraq's Shiite Government (which Bush insists on calling a government of national unity). Training and arming these supposed Iraqi forces is to choose one side in the civil war or as Leverett puts it, "to pour gasoline on the already raging fire of communal violence." Now, the administration is moving to arm the other side in the civil war. It has set up a Sunni militia in Anbar to fight al-Qaeda, but with the strong likelihood they will end of fighting the Shiite military and police, and American forces to the extent they see us as the Shiite's allies.

Leverett would have the United States play an active role in fostering the soft partition of Iraq into ethnic and sectarian regions. I think the U.S. should get out of the business of nation-building in Iraq. The Iraq Constitution is a road map to partition and Iraq's dominant Shiite-Kurdish alliance will have a better chance of making this work (and even to strike a deal with the Sunnis) without U.S. involvement. Over the long term, I don't see how partition will be soft. Sooner or later, and probably sooner, the Kurds will want to formalize their own state.

Several leading Democrats, including Senator Clinton, have rightly stressed America's obligation to the Kurds. Not only have the Kurds created the one stable and western-oriented part of Iraq, they are also on our side. They can be supported by arming and training their own army, the peshmerga, and by deploying a small U.S. force to Kurdistan where it would be welcomed by the government and people.

Leverett places considerable weight on the involvement of Iraq's Arab neighbors and Iran in a settlement in Iraq, a position supported by the Baker-Hamilton Commission and many other commentators. I have never understood what these neighbors have to offer. Iran strongly supports Iraq's current Shiite-led government, which after all is led by the people Iran sheltered, financed, and supported for decades. What more would we have Iran do? While Iraq's Sunni Arab neighbors have a dim view of Baghdad's Shiite government, they do not contribute significantly to Iraq's Sunni insurgency, which is an indigenous affair. I am very much for dialogue with Iran and Syria on the range of issues that divide us, but would not make Iraq central to that agenda. Iraq's problems are internal and will need an internal solution.

The next U.S. president could do a lot worse than take the advice Flynt Leverett offers. By not listening to him -- and other professionals in his administration -- the current U.S. president did a lot worse.

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Lawrence J. Korb: Withdraw from Iraq, Not from the Region

Flynt Leverett's analysis of the why and how we got ourselves mired in Iraq is right on the mark. The project failed not because of tactical mistakes but because of fundamental strategic flaws; that is, the United States naively believed that it could overthrow an autonomous regime, which ruled over a divided country, and in the process enhance our strategic interests while making the entire region better.

However, the next president also needs to acknowledge that tactical mistakes were made and that we must learn from them, so that if we ever have to intervene militarily in another place, we must send enough troops not only to win the war but also to secure the peace.

He is also correct in his diagnoses of the hard realities of the current situation in Iraq, namely, that a more robust regional diplomacy must be linked to the withdrawal of all American forces from Iraq, and that the U.S. must stop training Iraqi forces if we are to have any chance of minimizing the damage to our security.

I do, however, have some concerns about how Leverett presents the options that would be available to the next president.

First, phased redeployment does not necessarily mean leaving forces in Iraq. It can and should mean an orderly withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq at a realistic rate of about 10,000 personnel a month or in about a year after the withdrawal starts. This pace would minimize the risks to American forces as they leave. Phased withdrawal would also mean taking U.S. forces out of the midst of the civil war raging in Baghdad and letting them focus on battling Al Qaeda in Anbar during their remaining time in Iraq.

Second, Leverett overestimates the negative impact of placing some ground forces in Kuwait and does not deal with the fact that we have bases and forces in both Bahrain and Qatar. Would these facilities be closed as well? While keeping some forces in Kuwait (I would place an army brigade and tactical air squadron there, at least for the short term) could reinforce the notion of the United States as an occupying power, it would not have the same impact on the Muslim world as our stationing forces in Saudi Arabia.

The Kuwaitis welcome our presence because we liberated them from Saddam in 1991. Moreover Kuwait is not home to any places, such as Mecca or Medina, that are considered holy by Muslims around the world. In addition, the forces in Kuwait would only remain until the situation in Iraq stabilizes. Finally, while Al Qaeda and its associates will use our presence in any Arab country as a pretext for attacking us, we must balance that risk against protecting our overall security interests.

Third, while the United States should not advocate a soft partition (or any other arrangement) of Iraq, it must partition its policy. It must move its diplomatic, reconstruction and governance efforts away from Iraq's center and toward its localities and regions and let the Iraqis themselves decide on their formal legal structure.

The forces in Kuwait, plus the offshore balancing of the carrier battle groups and the Marine Expeditionary Force, would give us sufficient military power to protect our existential interests in the Gulf, that is, preventing Iraq from becoming a launching pad for international terrorism or a catalyst for regional instability that is so great that it jeopardizes U.S. economic or security interests.

Leverett is right that the only feasible military solution for Iraq in the short term is to deploy a multinational force that is authorized by the United Nations. However, he fails to note that the U.N. mandate authorizing the U.S. occupation expires at the end of 2007, and that the U.S. should take the lead in getting a new mandate that gives the U.N. responsibility for Iraq.

These concerns are comparatively minor and do not distract from the overall thrust of the memo. It is unfortunate that the current administration continues to ignore the "hard realities" and continues to double down on a failed policy.

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Suzanne Nossel and Charles A. Kupchan: Maintain a Residual Force, Support a Political Solution

While we agree with important parts of Leverett's analysis, we offer the following comments:

Need for Broader Efforts to Contain Violence and Stabilize Iraq Throughout the Withdrawal Process -- The memo references the president's commitment to near-term drawdown of U.S. troops, but also indicates that a regional deal on "soft partition" should be a precondition for significant withdrawal. This plan presumes that grand bargains will be reached with Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia and that a U.N. peacekeeping force will be deployed to oversee the partition process, at which point the promised pullback can begin. But it is far from certain that the contemplated bargains can be struck, or that the U.N. Security Council and troop-contributing countries will be prepared to deploy amid the ongoing violence in Iraq.

While "soft partition" in some form -- be it three regions or a loose federation of provinces -- may be the best path to stability and the restoration of civilian life, it may well prove unattainable even with the best efforts of the United States. The danger is that if these conditions cannot be met, political pressures will result in a hasty retreat with no accompanying strategy to minimize chaos and loss of life. The drawdown strategy needs to include comprehensive efforts to contain the crisis, including steps that do not depend on potentially elusive outside support.

At the very least, achieving "soft partition" will require an active U.S. role in affording Iraqis secure passage to regions where they will be safe. Additional measures should include steps to ensure that U.S. munitions and weaponry are secured and to address Iraq's worsening humanitarian crisis. Rather than imposing what amounts to new conditions that must be met prior to withdrawal, the Administration should focus on efforts to implement its stated policy of withdrawal in combination with a broad range of steps – diplomatic, military and humanitarian – to stem the violence and hardship likely to accompany the U.S. departure.

Regional Cooperation Should Buttress, Not Come at the Expense of, Regional Reform -- To create incentives for Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia to help the United States stabilize Iraq, Washington will have to fashion new bargains with each. With Iran, in particular, the administration will have to countenance a major change of course, agreeing to pursue a meaningful normalization of relations in return for Tehran's cooperation on Iraq, Hamas, Hezbollah, and on its nuclear program.

In Iran, the Bush administration's unwillingness to take regime change off the table had the paradoxical effect of fostering nationalist sentiment and suffocating internal dissent. That promotion of democracy got a bad name in the Middle East during the Bush years is not, however, grounds to take reform off the agenda in relations with Tehran -- and likewise Damascus and Riyadh. Agreeing to back off from support for democracy, freedom and human rights in the region, for example, would betray the faith of people living under these repressive regimes and undercut perceptions of the United States in the Mideast and beyond. At a time when restoring U.S. legitimacy is a paramount goal and a precursor to the achievement of many other policy objectives, Washington must not be seen to revert to "business as usual" when it comes to abusive Middle Eastern governments.

100% Withdrawal Carries its Own Risks -- Leverett's memo overstates the case for wholesale U.S. withdrawal from Iraq with no residual forces. Even if Robert Pape is right that prolonged U.S. deployments on Arab soil are the primary fuel for suicide attacks, sectarian and anti-American violence is likely to plague Iraq with or without a full withdrawal. Furthermore, the complete drawdown of U.S. troops would deny the U.S. the ability to prevent terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda, to deter sectarian atrocities, to secure U.S.-financed socioeconomic reconstruction projects, or to provide humanitarian assistance and safe passage to Iraqis caught in the conflict.

By committing to complete withdrawal, it would be difficult to reinsert troops, deploy special operations forces, or back up a U.N. operation -- developments the memo contemplates -- without such steps being portrayed as inconsistent with our own policy. Full-scale withdrawal would also send a signal regarding U.S. disengagement from the region that is inconsistent with the idea of continued American efforts to bring about a political settlement and an end to the bloodshed in Iraq. .

Accordingly, the strategy outlined should be modified in the following respects:

Maintain a Residual Force to Stem the Chaos in the Wake of U.S. Withdrawal -- As the memo notes, the President has committed to beginning a drawdown almost immediately. In doing so, however, a residual force of at least 20,000 troops should remain in Iraq to focus on containing al Qaeda's ability to carry out terror attacks and assisting with socio-economic reconstruction and humanitarian efforts in more peaceful parts of Iraq. We should make clear that this force, too, is temporary.

Afford All Possible Support for a Political End to the Bloodshed -- Having extracted ourselves from Iraq's civil war, we should concentrate political efforts on backing whatever form of settlement should emerge, including a tri-partite structure or provincial federation. The conflict's toll on both American and Iraqi lives mandate a focus on minimizing the duration of the conflict, containing its spread, and limiting the harm to Iraqi civilians in particular. In doing so, we should accept both that the vision of a unitary, peaceful Iraq has failed to materialize despite years of U.S. effort, and that American influence over political outcomes in Iraq is limited. In this context, the support we offer should include both political and financial support for credible diplomatic initiatives by Iraqis that can lead to an end to the carnage, and backing for U.N. or other multilateral engagement to protect civilians and restore Iraq to stability.

Facilitate safe passage of civilians from conflict zones -- The United States has a moral obligation to assist Iraqi civilians seeking to relocate from violent areas. It should designate safe corridors to peaceful parts of Iraq and work with international agencies to provide displaced persons adequate food and shelter and the opportunity to return home when conditions permit.

Reopen Robust but Principled Political Dialogues In the Region -- We should open broad-ranging and unconditional talks with Iran and Syria but, in doing so, not offer unequivocal support to these regimes, nor drop our concerns with their domestic political and human rights records. While Bush's misguided approach to democracy promotion had grievous consequences, offering an uncritical embrace for repressive regimes in return for near-term cooperation in Iraq would send the pendulum swinging too far in the opposite direction.

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Flynt Leverett Responds

I thank Peter Galbraith, Lawrence Korb, and Suzanne Nossel and Charles Kupchan for their thoughtful comments. To address their arguments, I will group their points of difference with me under four headings.

Residual Forces. Nossel/Kupchan, Galbraith, and Korb all take on my argument that, to restore America's strategic position in the Persian Gulf, the next administration must commit itself to withdrawing all conventional forces from Iraq and return to an "over the horizon" military posture in the region. Nossel/Kupchan, for their part, advocate drawing down current troop levels in Iraq but keeping significant residual forces there.

Unfortunately, this model of "phased redeployment", originally introduced by the Iraq Study Group in a classic example of lowest-common-denominator policy recommendations, does not stand up to hard-edged analysis. Proponents of "phased redeployment" have to answer the question, "What will residual U.S. forces in Iraq do?" To their credit, Nossel/Kupchan do not repeat the surreal argument that residual U.S. forces are needed to train "Iraqi security forces". (Training "national" security forces in the midst of a communal civil war is a euphemism for picking sides and making things worse, as Galbraith and Korb also recognize.) But they buy into other platitudes to justify the retention of residual ground forces in Iraq -- especially, that such forces are needed to conduct counterterrorism operations against Al Qaeda elements.

In this regard, it is particularly disappointing that Nossel/Kupchan ignore the critical point that conventional ground forces are essentially useless for counterterrorism missions. Keeping ground forces in Iraq gives the U.S. military no meaningful increase in its operational options against terrorists or other threats to regional stability. It will only perpetuate the enormous human costs, be a boon to jihadist recruitment, and further erode American standing in the world's most critical region.

Unfortunately, the same flawed assumptions that led too many Democratic foreign policy hands to support the invasion of Iraq are displacing real analysis once again, leading too many of the same people to argue that the United States cannot withdraw. Increasingly, Democrats' embrace of phased redeployment primarily reflects a domestic political calculation, whereby Democrats running for national office can appear to address the concerns of their party's antiwar base without alienating neoconservative fellow travelers in its "national security wing" or exposing themselves to Republican charges of "cutting and running" and being "weak" on national security. This may look like smart politics, but it is bad policy.

Galbraith argues for another version of phased redeployment, with the United States maintaining residual forces in Iraqi Kurdistan. While redeploying U.S. forces to Kurdish areas might provide military cover for eventual Kurdish independence (more on this below), this option, like phased redeployment à la Nossel/Kupchan, would do nothing to bolster U.S. military capabilities against terrorists or other regional threats. Furthermore, redeploying to Kurdish areas will not be perceived by anyone as ending the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Bases in northern Iraq would be a jihadist recruiting tool; their establishment could potentially pit the United States against Turkey, a major NATO ally.

Korb advocates yet a third alternative model of phased redeployment, which I describe as "withdraw and contain". Korb forthrightly supports the withdrawal of all U.S. conventional forces from Iraq, but wants to redeploy at least some ground and tactical air units to Kuwait. This option is arguably less damaging to long-term U.S. interests than "phased redeployment" within Iraq, but it, too, has significant political and security downsides with no operational upsides.

Korb writes that "forces in Kuwait plus the offshore balancing of the carrier battle groups and the Marine Expeditionary Force would give us sufficient military power to protect our existential interests in the Gulf". Take out "forces in Kuwait" and the sentence is just as true; returning to a true "over the horizon" posture would leave the United States a full range of military capabilities and options in the region while avoiding the profoundly negative blowback that an expanded "on the ground" presence would generate.

Korb argues that, unlike Saudi Arabia -- where the retention of U.S. forces on the ground after the first Gulf war was the direct catalyst for Al Qaeda's emergence -- Kuwait is not sacred territory for Muslims. This may once have been true, but after America's prolonged occupation of Iraq, the terms of reference used by Sunni jihadists to define Islam's "holy land" have expanded to encompass virtually any Muslim country. U.S. bases in Bahrain, where the Fifth Fleet is based, and Qatar, where Central Command maintains a combat air operations center and facilities to support ground force deployments during a crisis, are essential to an effective "over the horizon" posture, and their existence has not so far been a major focus for jihadist agitation. An expanded U.S. presence in Kuwait, however, would almost certainly become such a focus, because it would entail deployment of significant ground forces.

"Hard" or "Soft" Partition? All three commentaries share my deep skepticism of the "centralist" illusions undergirding the Bush administration's approach to political reconstitution in post-Saddam Iraq. Galbraith, however, takes issue with my recommendation of "soft" partition as an alternative political model. He argues that "hard" partition -- with three independent entities emerging out of a failed Iraqi state, rather than the consolidation of three autonomous regions within a nominally unitary state -- is a more likely and realistic political outcome.

Galbraith is certainly correct that pursuing "soft" partition would present U.S. policymakers with daunting diplomatic and political challenges. But can anyone other than a dedicated advocate of the Kurdish cause really believe that "hard" partition is preferable to the "soft" alternative? Serious moves toward the "hard" partition of Iraq would, among other things, dramatically raise the risks of military intervention by neighboring states -- including the risks of Turkish intervention in the Kurdish areas, which is becoming an increasingly imminent regional flash point. Galbraith argues for the redeployment of U.S. forces to Kurdish areas as partial fulfillment of America's "obligation" to the Kurds, but the negative consequences of such as move have already been discussed. "Soft" partition is the only way to accommodate the regionalist realities of Iraqi politics while avoiding the negative consequences of "hard" partition.

Involving the Neighbors. Galbraith and Nossel/Kupchan are skeptical about my recommendations regarding the engagement of Iraq's neighbors in managing the partition process. Galbraith's sense that "hard" partition is inevitable leads him to question what neighboring states could contribute to a process aimed at "soft" partition. However, as Galbraith himself acknowledges, Iran has established enormous influence over the full range of important Shia players in Iraq -- and, it should be noted, over the major Kurdish parties as well. More broadly, there are plenty of deals to be struck between Iraq's major communal groups and neighboring states -- including between Iraqi Kurds and Turkey -- that would keep these increasingly autonomous communities within a nominally unitary state. But these deals will not be struck in a strategic vacuum. Creating a strategic framework for the region within which such deals can be struck needs to become a priority objective for American diplomacy.

Nossel/Kupchan are exercised that forging new strategic bargains between the United States and key regional players -- Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia -- will come at the expense of American efforts to promote democracy in the Middle East. Looking at the post-9/11 experience of democracy promotion in the region, their concern over this point astounds me. The Iraq war was not a basically good idea that President Bush ruined through poor implementation; it was from the outset a bad idea, rooted in profoundly flawed strategic assumptions. Similarly, democracy promotion in the Middle East is not another vital imperative for U.S. foreign policy that the Bush administration mishandled; it is also a bad idea, rooted in some of the same flawed and uninformed strategic assumption as the Iraq war.

As I wrote in The American Prospect in September 2006, "there is no evidence that democracy reduces the incidence of terrorism, and ample evidence from places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia that holding more open elections in most Arab societies would produce governments that are more anti-American and less reformist than incumbent 'authoritarians.'" I have advocated elsewhere that the United States should be doing more to support economic reform and the protection of human rights in Middle Eastern states, but to let "democracy promotion" stand in the way of significant strategic gains for the United States and its allies in the region would be profoundly misguided.

Conditionality. Finally, Nossel/Kupchan argue that, by linking the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq with robust diplomatic efforts to forge a new strategic framework for the region, I am imposing "new conditions" for withdrawal. I am doing nothing of the sort.

My original piece started from the premise that a newly inaugurated Democratic president will be under enormous political pressure to keep campaign commitments to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq. Thus, I take it for granted that the next administration will preside over a fundamental reconfiguration of the American military presence there -- through some version of phased redeployment, "withdraw and contain", or -- as I recommend -- a comprehensive withdrawal that returns the United States to an "over the horizon" military posture in the Persian Gulf. I also believe that the dominant political tendencies in Iraq are regionalist, not centralist. One goal of my original piece is to show it could be possible to leverage the reconfiguration of America's military posture in the region and the transition to new approach to Iraq's political reconstitution to bring about a new regional bargain.

The next administration may not be up to that task. In that case, we will get a reconfiguration of America's military presence in Iraq that not grounded in hard-nosed analysis or linked to any broader strategy for the region. After eight years of the Bush administration, I would hope, for my country, that Democrats would have higher aspirations than that.