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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The Pentagon's consistent denial that we need more troops in Iraq has become absurd. Occasionally, commanders slip and speak the truth. A few weeks ago, General Ricardo Sanchez noted that he had decided to step up operations against the guerrilla-terrorists in the Sunni triangle. To do so, he did the obvious: He increased the number of American troops deployed there. More recently, an American battalion commander noted that intelligence on terrorist actions had improved in August and September. Why? Because the Iraqis in his sector "started to realize they could give us information and we would protect them." How? With lots of American troops visible and readily available to do the protecting. Will Iraqis feel the same confidence if our troops retreat to their garrisons and hastily trained and poorly equipped Iraqi forces take their place?

The president has publicly dedicated his administration to keeping U.S. forces in place as long as necessary to build a democratic Iraq. It would be helpful if the Pentagon implemented a strategy consistent with the president's stated goals. Or we can cross our fingers and just hope it all works out. But that's an irresponsible risk to take. Failing in Iraq would be a strategic calamity worse than America's retreat from Vietnam 30 years ago. As Senator John McCain put it this week, the only acceptable exit strategy is victory. The president calls our effort in Iraq "a massive and difficult undertaking." It is that, and it is also a necessary and admirable one. The question is whether Bush will see to it that his Pentagon does what it takes to make that undertaking succeed.

--William Kristol and Robert Kagan