The great irony, of course, is that while the Baker commission's anticipated report has been hailed as offering a long-overdue change of course, it seems unlikely to do so. The commission's supporters trumpet the idea that there can be no military solution in Iraq, only a political solution, as if Pentagon officials have not been making the same point for three years. The commission may call for more intensive negotiations among Iraqis aimed at establishing some new political modus vivendi, as if American diplomats in Baghdad have not been desperately promoting such negotiations for years. The commission may argue that our goal in Iraq should be stability rather than democracy, as if the administration would not long ago have settled for stability if it could have found a way of achieving it.
With nothing new to offer, the Baker commission's report--if it takes the shape most observers predict--will probably suffer the same fate as similar efforts have in the past. It doesn't matter how clever or how "realistic" the political proposals drawn up in Washington may be: Unless the majority of Iraqi people can be protected from terrorist bombers, insurgents, and death squads, they will not be able to negotiate and sustain any political solution. If the United States and Iraqi government forces cannot provide them security, they will increasingly look to their own sectarian forces to provide what security they can.
There is a popular theory these days that the pressure of an American withdrawal will force Iraqis to reach some kind of accommodation with one another. This would be more plausible had it not already been disproved by three years of painful experience. The United States has been promising to withdraw from Iraq since the beginning of the war, and the only result has been to drive Iraqis closer and closer to sectarian conflict. If we wanted to try something truly novel, we would tell Iraqis that the United States did not intend to withdraw until the insurgency was defeated and the sectarian militias were disarmed. It is precisely the illusion that a political solution is possible in the midst of increasingly rampant violence that has gotten us where we are today. Yet this is the illusion the Baker commission may try to sell once again.
There is no getting around the fact that under present conditions, an American military withdrawal, even if undertaken gradually, will bring about the rapid collapse of Iraq. These days one gets the impression that many Americans are sanguine about this possibility. Some seem to believe that things are already as bad as they can get in Iraq. This is willful self-deception. Were the United States to withdraw from Iraq prematurely, the sectarian violence we are seeing today would seem minor compared to the bloodshed of a genuine civil war. There would be no decent interval, no moment when the Iraqi people peacefully separated themselves into their respective sectarian quarters. They would battle for control of cities and towns and resources across most of the country. The result would be real, bloody ethnic cleansing--of the kind that the United States twice intervened in the Balkans to prevent, of the kind we failed to prevent in Rwanda, and of the kind we are now shamefully failing to prevent in Sudan. The difference in Iraq would be that this time the United States would be more directly responsible for bringing about this humanitarian nightmare.
If such considerations do not move the cool calculators of America's national interests, consider this: Among the many fruits of an Iraqi collapse could well be the creation of safe havens, perhaps quite extensive ones, for international terrorist groups. We have read some hopeful assessments that the Iraqis themselves will not permit al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations to operate in their midst once American forces leave. That hope strikes us as fanciful. Today, Sunni insurgents work in tandem with Islamic jihadists in their bloody assaults on innocent Shia civilians. In the sectarian violence that would follow a collapse of American policy in Iraq, such cooperation would no doubt continue. And in a chaotic Iraq consumed by civil war, who would take the trouble to ensure that some portions of Iraqi territory do not become little al Qaeda-stans?
What this means is that a failed Iraq would quickly become a base for terrorist operations against the United States and other western nations. The Baker commission may recommend "redeploying" American forces out of the most contested areas in Iraq, including Baghdad, and stationing them somewhere "over the horizon." But how long would it be before this president or the next had to order those troops back in again to fight the terrorists we would have empowered?