One thing is clear as the recently elected Democrats take their positions in Congress in the coming months: Change is on the way for the United States’ strategy in Iraq. While Bush has so far proven reluctant to “change the course,” both the shift of power in Congress and Rumsfeld’s recent resignation suggest that the president will have a hard time maintaining this intransigence for long. Indeed, many members of the Senate have already begun to flex their new muscles, calling for an immediate change in U.S. policy and the beginning of a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. While Americans rightly voted Democrats into power to challenge the war aims of this administration, such hastiness in deciding to withdraw American troops could come at great cost to the United States and to Iraq. The months ahead require patience and cooperation between the two parties to find the best possible solution to the disaster of this war.
It is old news why pulling out now could result in an even worse catastrophe: In the absence of U.S. troops, sectarian violence will reach unprecedented levels, Qaida-esque groups will operate with impunity in Sunni regions beyond the control of Baghdad, and Iran will fill the vacuum of power left in our wake. While all of these scenarios are of course hypothetical, even the possibility of their realization should make one think twice before advocating troop withdrawal now, particularly as sectarian bloodshed has increased significantly in the last few weeks.
Thus, in the face of such horrific possibilities, it always puzzles me why so many well-meaning and thoughtful Americans call for an instant withdrawal of U.S. troops. Don’t they realize what this could cost both to the security of the Iraqi populace and to American strategic interests? In their defense, they offer one argument that may make some sense: Our continued presence in Iraq only keeps the Iraqi government and security forces from standing on their own feet. Once we show them we’re on our way out, they’ll begin to take things more seriously. And once we’re gone, the argument goes, the insurgency will lay down its arms and join the political process.
For various reasons, this argument seems unconvincing: Why would the wholly inefficient and unstable Iraqi government suddenly get its act together when we leave if it hasn’t been able to yet? What additional resources will it suddenly drawn upon in our absence to stabilize Iraq? And why would a primarily Sunni insurgency suddenly lay down arms when left alone with an overwhelmingly Shiite government? At the very least, testing the validity of this argument comes at an extremely high cost if it is proven wrong.
We simply do not know how the insurgency — both the Islamists and the homegrown Iraqi resistance — will react to our withdrawal. And that is why we desperately need input from bipartisan commissions, such as the Baker-Hamilton Commission, in deciding our next course of action in Iraq. Now that the opposition party is in power in Congress, we have an unprecedented opportunity to explore the extent to which we have failed in Iraq and what choices still remain open. We cannot squander this opportunity with unremitting calls to jump ship and withdraw our troops.
The Democrats should refocus their agenda from finding an exit strategy to finding a victory strategy. While the chances of creating a stable, democratic Iraq are all but zero, there is still some hope that we can help secure Iraq from all-out civil war and genocide. Both the Democrats and the Republicans should take very seriously the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton Commission and work to find common ground on what new policies make the most sense. This war was driven by a dogmatic and stubborn administration that refused to acknowledge failure when it came, digging us deeper every day into quagmire. The Democrats represent hope not because they promise an immediate way out of Iraq, leaving us with a humanitarian disaster that will haunt us for generations, but because they promise the possibility of realizing a truly humane and reasonable end to this ill-conceived and poorly executed war.
James Martin is a senior in Silliman College.