What happens if we stay in Iraq? What happens if we leave?
Those are the two questions that Americans have to ask themselves. In the months to come, it's important to think through the potential consequences of each course of action in ways that we did not think through the decision to invade Iraq in the first place — in other words, without preconception and without wishful thinking.
But first, let's be precise about what we mean. Withdrawal would not be rapid, nor would it be complete. Instead, it would be accomplished in phases, perhaps over a year's time, with U.S. troops gradually pulling back to bases in the only part of Iraq where they are likely to be welcomed, which is Kurdistan. Those forces would be essential to ensure that outside governments are not drawn into the chaos once we leave, either to take sides in religious strife or to seize Iraqi territory and oil.
Even with those safeguards, however, the consequences of withdrawal would be enormously bloody. Iraq would probably descend into a cycle of brutality and retribution that would take years to play out; tens of thousands of innocent lives would probably be lost as various militias fight for control of the country, region by region.
The loss of American prestige caused by withdrawal would be significant as well, weakening our ability to influence events in the Middle East. And regardless of which Iraqi group emerged victorious from civil war, Iran's regional influence would be strengthened.
Withdrawal, in other words, would solve nothing. We would leave Iraq an ugly, dangerous place, for the Iraqis, for their neighbors and for Western interests in the region, a fact that even advocates of withdrawal should acknowledge.
Now, let's turn the question around: Is there any reason to believe that staying would produce a better outcome?
William Kristol and Rich Lowry, two prominent champions of the decision to invade, used the op-ed page of The Washington Post this week to plead for more troops to turn the tide in a battle that even they now concede is going bad.
Conceivably, more troops might have made a difference early in the occupation. But for all his histrionics about Iraq as the central battlefield in a war to preserve Western civilization, President Bush has never matched that rhetoric with action, never committing the manpower that such high stakes would seem to justify. And now it's too late.
In Iraq, a society in which even the smallest of slights is considered grounds for violence, the rage and lust for vengeance between Sunnis and Shiites has simply become too strong to be suppressed.
Besides, we don't have more troops to commit anyway. The U.S. military is doing all it can just to sustain its current commitment of more than 140,000 troops. When additional troops were needed to try to retake Baghdad, they were stripped from Sunni-dominated Anbar province, where Marines are fighting what their own intelligence officers acknowledge is a losing effort.
However, if we cannot give Iraq more troops, we can conceivably give it more time. But in another year, in another two years, in another five years, will our choices be any better?
If the past is any guide, the answer is no. In the 3 1/2 years since we invaded, the passage of time has only made things worse in Iraq, not better, and no matter how much we might wish otherwise, it is hard to imagine a mechanism that would reverse that trend.
It's also important to accept that whether we stay or go, the final outcome is likely to be the same. By virtue of its demography and geography, non-Kurdish Iraq is destined to become a Shiite-dominated, anti-American theocracy, and there's really not much we can do to alter that outcome, because it's what the majority of Iraqis seem to want. Certainly, no one who has watched events of the past three years can harbor realistic hope of a pro-American secular democracy taking root there, and it would be immoral to ask our men and women in uniform to risk their lives in pursuit of an outcome we know is implausible.
In other words, even if we decide to stay in Iraq, our presence would be temporary, and all the drawbacks of withdrawal, from loss of prestige to greater influence for Iran, would be merely delayed.
By staying, the most we can probably accomplish is to ease Iraq toward that final outcome with somewhat less bloodshed and chaos than would result if we began to withdraw soon. And given growing viciousness in Iraq, even that small hope may prove far-fetched.
Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor. His column appears Thursdays and Mondays.
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