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Bush's Iraq Legacy

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What kind of Iraq will he bequeath to his successor?

Nov 20, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 10 • By ROBERT KAGAN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Then there is the matter of foreign intervention. Observers worry today that Iran is too influential in Iraq. This fear is probably overstated. But imagine what would happens were we to depart and Iraq to collapse. Iran would intervene to protect its interests. And so would Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and other near neighbors. The regionalization of the Iraqi morass will make the present situation look comparatively stable.

This multifaceted cataclysm might not come on President Bush's watch. To continue along the present course, albeit in the Baker commission's new rhetorical guise, could buy enough time so that Bush's successor would have to deal with the consequences of his failure, not Bush himself. Maybe that is the gift that the team of Bush 41 is offering to Bush 43, a clever way of passing the buck. But is this president really willing to pass on an Iraq nightmare to his successor? Is that the historical legacy he plans to settle for in his remaining two years in office?

Instead of looking for a graceful and face-saving way to lose in Iraq, the president could finally demand of his civilian and military advisers a strategy to succeed. Such a strategy would do what previous strategies have not done: provide the number of American forces necessary to achieve even minimal political objectives in Iraq. Such an effort would begin by increasing American force levels in Iraq by at least 50,000.

The objective of this increased force would be to do what has not been done since the beginning of the war: to clear and hold Baghdad, without shifting troops from other contested areas of Iraq. As our colleague, military expert Frederick Kagan, has argued--and sources inside the U.S. military have confirmed--an additional 50,000 troops could secure the Iraqi capital. Once that is accomplished, clear and hold operations could expand outward toward the areas of the Sunni insurgency. This strategy would not pacify and stabilize all of Iraq in one year or perhaps even two. But it could secure and stabilize the vital center of that country, and provide real hope for progress--hope to Iraqis as well as to Americans. At least the president would be able to hand off an Iraq that had some prospect of success instead of one heading inexorably toward disaster.

Those who claim that it is impossible to send 50,000 more troops to Iraq, because the troops don't exist, are wrong. The troops do exist. But it is also true that the Army and Marines are stretched, and that this new deployment needs to be accompanied by rapid steps to increase the overall size of American ground forces. For six years, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld refused to acknowledge that his vision of the American military of the future did not match the present reality of American military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan and around the world. We trust the new secretary of defense will understand the necessity of dealing urgently with the manpower crisis in our military.

If the president finally undertook to send the necessary number of troops to Iraq, we have no doubt that many of the recommendations likely to come from the Baker commission would make sense and could be supported. We share the commission's belief that the administration should actively seek bipartisan support for its approach to Iraq. It always could have done more in this regard. And we believe that leading Democrats could support an increase of troop levels in Iraq with the aim of stabilizing the situation. Those Democrats who hope to be elected president in 2008 should welcome any effort to ensure that they are not left to deal with a collapsing Iraq should they enter the White House.

There is a lot of easy talk of how a victory strategy in Iraq has been rendered impossible by Tuesday's elections. This is nonsense. First of all, victory in Iraq is a national priority, and to abandon it because of a loss of House and Senate seats would be irresponsible. But it is also the case that the loss of seats was in great measure due to a lack of confidence that Bush had a strategy for victory in Iraq, not a belief that he wasn't exiting fast enough. If the president makes clear that he is serious about victory, and has a strategy for attaining it, he will have the support he needs in order to do what is necessary to turn things around in Iraq.

As for the Baker commission's likely recommendation that the United States should engage Syria and Iran in the search for solutions in Iraq, we are skeptical that those countries will want to be helpful. But it is one thing to seek their help while we are losing and withdrawing, when our negotiating position is at its weakest, and quite another to engage in such diplomacy while we increase our force levels and try to improve the security situation. If people are serious about negotiating with the likes of Syria and Iran, they should want our diplomats to go in with as strong a hand as possible.

Finally, as others have pointed out, if the Iraqis choose to organize their country in a less "unified" and more "federated" way, that is fine--as long as it is peaceful and stable. A peaceful and stable federated Iraq will, however, require no less of a commitment of U.S. troops to provide security than a unitary one. As for our support for democratic governance in Iraq, that has been as much practical as moral. We have yet to hear how the imposition of a dictatorship in Iraq would solve the problem, or even be possible. Would a new, U.S.-approved strongman be Sunni or Shia? If one or the other, how would he exercise control over the country and with what army? The thing about a strongman is that he has to be strong. But it is precisely the conundrum of Iraq that no one and no group of people is strong enough to impose their will. That is why consensus is necessary among the different groups, and why some representation of the people's desires is necessary within them. But whatever political solution one favors, they all depend on achieving a minimum level of order and security in Iraq, and that is something that only American forces have any chance of providing.

The president has two years to turn things around and leave a viable Iraq to the next president. It should be obvious that "staying the course" is a recipe for failure. So are politically driven exit strategies. The president is left with the choice: quit, or do what is necessary to succeed. We trust the president understands that the task before him in Iraq is to find a strategy for success.

--Robert Kagan and William Kristol