The Magazine

Exit Strategy or Victory Strategy?

From the November 17, 2003 issue: Following through on the president's promise for Iraq.

Nov 17, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 10 • By ROBERT KAGAN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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THE FRONT PAGE of the November 7 Washington Post says it all. The first headline, in large type: "Bush Urges Commitment to Transform Mideast." Below, in slightly smaller type: "Pentagon to Shrink Iraq Force." And below that: "Iraqi Security Crews Getting Less Training." It's a jarring juxtaposition. The president eloquently makes the case for a necessarily and admirably ambitious foreign policy. Yet his own administration's deeds threaten the achievement of his goals.

In his fine speech to the National Endowment for Democracy last Thursday, the president made the case for "a forward strategy of freedom" in the Middle East. He put the Iraq conflict in its proper context: "the establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event," but "the failure of Iraqi democracy would embolden terrorists around the world, increase dangers to the American people, and extinguish the hopes of millions in the region." Or, as the president said earlier in the week: "The enemy in Iraq believes America will run. That's why they're willing to kill innocent civilians, relief workers, coalition troops. America will never run. America will do what is necessary . . ."

Except, apparently, increase American troop strength or take the time properly to train Iraqi security forces. On the Sunday talk shows at the beginning of last week, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld didn't exactly say that we were going to run, but he certainly sounded as if he were eyeing the exits. He emphasized that "you've got to get the security responsibility transferred to the Iraqi people. . . . It's their country. . . . We're not going to provide security in their country over a sustained period of time." And then on the same day as the president's speech, the Defense Department announced plans to reduce U.S. forces by about 20 percent in the next few months. The secretary of defense claimed that the rapid growth of Iraqi security forces made this drawdown possible--even though that growth has come at the cost of levels of training previously thought necessary to enable them to do their job.

In other words: The president wants to win, and the Pentagon wants to get out. It's of course possible we can do both at once. And it's also true that on the political side, there's a strong case for a faster transfer of power to the Iraqis. But the fact remains that over the short term we have a policy in contradiction with itself. Is it to be a victory strategy or an exit strategy? The president has, since 9/11, prevailed (on key matters) over the status quo foreign policy favored by his State Department. Will he now prevail over his Defense Department as well? After all, speeches are good; troops are better.

Now it's true that the pressures to draw down American forces are real. The Congressional Budget Office warns that the Army does not have sufficient active component forces to "maintain the occupation at its current size, limit deployments to one year, and sustain all of its other commitments" around the world. The CBO is right. But we must also face the reality that we are a nation at war, and normal troop deployment schedules can no longer hold in every instance.

Moreover, almost three years into the Bush administration, the serious deficit in the overall size of American forces can no longer be blamed exclusively on the Clinton administration. When Vice President Dick Cheney was secretary of defense a dozen years ago, he recommended that the Army should have at least 12 divisions to meet American global responsibilities in the post-Cold War world. Today there are 10 divisions. Recently, more than 50 members of the House Armed Services Committee, including committee chairman Duncan Hunter, wrote to Rumsfeld asking him to increase overall troop strength by two divisions. But Rumsfeld remains dogmatically committed to a smaller force, despite the overwhelming evidence that the force is already dangerously inadequate to meet the president's stated strategic requirements.

The immediate danger is that the American mission in Iraq may be the first and most dire casualty of this administration's parsimony. In these pages a few weeks ago, Lewis Lehrman felicitously observed, "prudence counsels that to desire the Bush Doctrine is to desire the indispensable means to make it effective." So far, the Pentagon has shown little interest in developing and deploying the indispensable means to make the Bush Doctrine effective. The stunning victory in the war to remove Saddam has been followed by an almost equally stunning lack of seriousness about winning the peace, despite the vital importance of creating a stable, secure, and democratic Iraq. That is what the Bush Doctrine of "regime change" means, or should mean: Not blowing out the bad regime and then leaving others to pick up the pieces, but staying long enough to ensure that a good regime can take its place.