With the war in Iraq well into its fourth year with no end in sight, exit strategies are springing up in the gardens of op-ed pages like peonies in May. Senator John Kerry, quoting generals that the war cannot be won militarily, wrote last month in The New York Times that Iraqi politicians should be told that they had until May 15 to ''put together an effective unity government or we will immediately withdraw our military."
If Iraqi politicians comply, Kerry argued, American combat forces should be out of Iraq by year's end. ''Only troops essential to finishing the job of training Iraqi forces should remain."
''For this transition to work," Kerry said, there needed to be a ''Dayton Accords-like summit" to knock heads together, the way Richard Holbrooke did to end the war in Bosnia. In the meantime, American troops would be redeployed to ''garrisoned status," sallying forth only on special ops against Al Qaeda.
This month Senator Joseph Biden and Leslie Gelb, former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, also referred to Dayton in their op-ed for the Times, saying that it kept Bosnia whole by ''paradoxically, dividing it into ethnic federations, even allowing Muslims, Croats and Serbs to retain separate armies."
As in Bosnia, each Iraqi ethno-religious group should be allowed ''room to run its own affairs, while leaving the central government in charge of common interests," Biden and Gelb argued. The Shi'ite south, the Sunni center, and the Kurdish north would run their own affairs, with the oil-poor Sunnis being compensated ''to make their region viable."
The rights of women and minorities would be respected and protected ''by increasing American aid to Iraq but tying it to those rights."
Under the Biden-Gelb plan, troops would be out by 2008, leaving a ''small but effective residual force to combat terrorists and keep the neighbors honest."
Also in the Times, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said breaking Iraq along ethnic and religious lines would bring only further disaster. The populations are too intermixed, he said. Dividing the country would mean dividing the army, which would strengthen the militias, ''all of which would lead to more violence . . . And, of course , there is no way to divide Iraq that will not set off fights over control of oil." Regional neighbors would jump in to support factions friendly to them, and religious extremism would flourish, according to Cordesman.
The division of Iraq would ''convey the message that America has been defeated and abandoned a nation and a people," Cordesman wrote. Having broken Iraq, the United States has a responsibility for its people and cannot leave a ''power vacuum in an already dangerous region. . ."
It has become clear that the Bush administration is looking for a way out of what has become the worst US foreign policy mistake in living memory. Biden and Gelb are probably right when they say that Bush has no clear strategy, and hopes only to hang on until he can pass the whole mess off to the next president.
The critiques of Kerry, Biden, Gelb and Cordesman are constructive and thoughtful, but are they still relevant? I fear the failures of the past three years have lost us the ability to dictate to Iraqis how to organize their society and their governments, or to tell them how they should proportion power among their regions. I fear that, in that sense, Iraq is already all but lost to us.
The United States is not going to be able to control the course of events in Iraq. Whether there will be accommodation or civil war is no longer up to us. Cordesman may be right when he says that having broken Iraq, we have a responsibility, but wrong when he says we cannot leave a power vacuum. The power vacuum is already in place. We cannot fill it, and Iraq is pounding down the road toward a failed state -- a state in which jihadis now train for service in Afghanistan, and Americans, more and more, stay in their fortified and isolated bases.
It may be irresponsible to leave Iraq in the lurch, but one day I fear we will do just that because the irresponsibility of how and why we went in will be the determining factor, and the bankruptcy of policy will make the burdens of Iraq no longer sustainable at home -- a ''barren outcome" to occupying a ''bitterly hostile land," as the president's father foresaw so clearly 15 years ago.
H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.
© 2006 Globe Newspaper Company