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Iraq: Walk, Don't Run to the Exits

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I think most of us know that at some point in the very near future, the US will start drawing down troops in Iraq. Come March we will have been in Iraq for five years. Five years.

We know that any draw down won’t happen under the current President. Unlike his father, who was able to go to war and bring the troops home, the son hasn’t or won’t find an exit strategy for our troops.

The unknown is how we get out. Will we have a gradual withdrawl of troops, or will it be immediate? And what will be the political costs back home?

Jonathan Rauch has a good article that talks about the how best to leave Iraq. His concern is what happens if, as it is exceedingly possible, the Dems take the White House and hold on to Congress:

Then the Democrats will have a decision to make: Withdraw as quickly as possible, on party-line congressional votes? Or withdraw more slowly, at a pace that can command sizable support among Republicans—say, a majority or near-majority of them?

In short, can they not do what the Republicans did with the initial invasion: make it a partisan issue? Rauch explains one possible way the Democrats could handle leaving Iraq:

In 2009, a Democratic president might say something like this: “Every year of this administration, America will reduce its troop strength in Iraq. The downward path is nonnegotiable and ironclad. But the pace is not. If Iraqis try sincerely and strenuously to keep their country together, or if they decentralize enough to keep the peace, and if they produce results, we will help them, including militarily. If not, we’ll pull out much faster.” This is not unlike what Joe Biden has said, both as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as a Democratic presidential candidate. It implies a faster withdrawal than Bush Republicans prefer, but a slower one than dovish Democrats demand. And my guess is that many, if not most, Republicans would go for it.

Republican hard-liners, of course, might prefer demagoguery. But grown-up Republicans would recognize that withdrawal is inevitable; they would want to be relevant; they would feel battered by the election results, and tired of incurring the public’s wrath; they would face intense pressure not to sabotage a new commander in chief who could claim the public mandate.

A Democratic President could be face with a wonderful opportunity: to help bring the nation together after 8 years of fierce partisanship. It wouldn’t be something everyone would want, but it would be a way to leave carefully, which is not what we did going into Iraq.

Of course, the problem is going to be the Hard Left. They want out of Iraq yesterday and don’t really care much about the consequences. A Democratic President might be made to feel that he or she owes their win to the MoveOn crowd which sees Iraq in partisan terms. If a Dem President did that, Rauch thinks the results would be disasterous, not simply for the Democrats, but for the nation as a whole:

So far in the primary campaign, Democratic presidential candidates have had a hard time keeping the door open for any American forces to stay in Iraq. If the Democrats sweep the board this year, doves will say that the public has spoken and wants change. Why in the world should they pace the withdrawal from Iraq at a rate that suits the losing party?

Yet if the Democrats were to rush for the exit with Republicans unified against them, they would be blamed by Republicans for whatever subsequent disasters befell Iraq and, for that matter, the whole disaster-prone Middle East. For years, they would face charges of having “cut and run,” which could reinvigorate the debilitating stereotype of Democratic weakness. On the other hand, a policy with significant two-party support would be less contentious, more sustainable, and thus more likely to succeed. Running the whole government, Democrats would need to care about succeeding.

Ruach concludes that any President is going to have find a way to leave Iraq and leave our country intact. Would a President Obama that has spoken about unity, be willing to work with Republicans on a pull out that will do the least harm in Iraq and help bring the country together? What would a President Clinton do?

I have no idea, but I do think we need to think long and hard about how to best leave. As I’ve said before, it was a mistake to rush in; it will be a mistake to rush out.