President Bush has a little over two years left in office. The central question facing him is this: What kind of Iraq will he bequeath to his successor? Will it be an Iraq in a state of collapse, a horrible and metastasizing mess dumped on the doorstep of the next president? Or an Iraq on a path toward stability and success--with increasing security for Iraqi citizens, an increasingly viable political system, and a developing economy? The answer will determine how this president should be remembered by future generations.
There are, of course, other grave issues at stake that will consume the Bush administration over the next two years: the continuing need to defend Americans from the threat of terrorist attack; Iran's efforts to acquire nuclear weapons; the containment, deterrence, and weakening of a nuclear-armed North Korea; the problems posed by an authoritarian and increasingly belligerent Russia; and the manifold challenges posed by a rising China. But the fact remains that Bush (correctly, in our view) took the nation to war to remove Saddam Hussein, and the success or failure of that war will be central to his legacy.
The current trajectory is downward toward failure. Indeed, this has been the trajectory for over three years, ever since Pentagon officials, civilian and military, decided to put far too few troops in Iraq: too few to bring order and stability to the country after Saddam's ouster; too few to prevent the growth of an insurgency; and then too few to put it down. At every stage in the ensuing downward spiral, senior Pentagon officials, with the approval not just of the secretary of defense but of two national security advisers and the president himself, have refused to increase American forces in Iraq to the levels necessary for success. On the contrary, they have always had one foot out the door. Pentagon military and civilian officials have been trying to exit Iraq ever since the military entered it.
On May 3, 2003--less than a month after U.S. troops entered Baghdad--the New York Times reported the Pentagon's plans to "withdraw most United States combat forces from Iraq over the next several months," reducing the number of troops from 130,000 to 30,000 by the fall of 2003. In every year that followed, military planners hoped to undertake a substantial draw-down of forces in response to hoped-for and much anticipated political developments in Iraq. And every time, those anticipated political developments foundered on the inability of combined coalition and Iraqi forces to provide the basic security necessary to make political progress possible. So the Pentagon kept enough troops in Iraq to avert immediate disaster, and also to prolong the conflict, but not enough to make progress and avert the prospect of eventual disaster.
The result has not only been a consistently inadequate level of forces. The endless cycle of promised draw-downs, followed by deteriorating security, and then a cancellation of the proposed draw-downs has been politically disastrous both in Iraq and in the United States. In Iraq, American policies have steadily undermined the Iraqi people's confidence that the United States has either the will or capacity to provide them the security they need and deserve. So they have turned to their own sectarian armed groups for the protection the Bush administration has failed to provide. That, and not historical inevitability or the alleged failings of the Iraqi people, is what has brought Iraq closer to civil war.
In the United States, these policies have been equally damaging. The American people have rightly judged that the administration is floundering in Iraq and, worse, is not committed to doing what is necessary to succeed. This perception undoubtedly played a large part in last week's election. Now, as a result of three years of failed policy, many Americans, including many one-time supporters of the war, have decided that success is no longer possible and it is time to get out.
Many are looking to the Iraq Study Group, the commission headed by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, to provide a face-saving, bipartisan way for the United States to withdraw from Iraq as quickly as possible, with a clear conscience and a decent interval before the full and disastrous consequences of that withdrawal manifest themselves. Most expect the commission's report will provide intellectual cover for retreat, offering elaborate explanations of how the departure of American troops will actually improve the prospects for a political settlement in Iraq.