The war in Iraq has become one of the defining issues of American politics. Bush's current policy is to stay in Iraq until either the Iraqi government announces they are ready to take over or all the violence ends. Folly though it may be, Bush's policy sounds simple and strong--and so until the opposition can unite behind a clear, alternative policy on Iraq, Bush will continue to be able to defame his critics as cowards, liars, and opportunists, and to distort their criticism as a call for retreat or as no meaningful alternative at all. Until the Democrats can offer a competing Iraq policy, they will remain critics instead of leaders... and if Bush decides to leave early or otherwise alter his policy, he will just steal his critics' thunder instead of proving them right.
So what should this policy be? Should we set a timetable for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq? Should it be a phased timetable, or should it be a simple deadline? Should we start now, sometime next year, or later? Should we set quantitative milestones instead of specific dates for a withdrawal? Should we try to bring in the international community in some way that we have not already done?
Much of the debate centers on the question of what would happen if we were to pull out... and what will happen if we do not. If we leave, will all hell break loose? Will the Iraqi government collapse from civil war? Will the insurgents win? Would an American retreat instead strengthen the Iraqi government's legtimacy with its own people? Would the withdrawal of the occupying forces deprive the insurgency of its rallying point... and hence its support? And if we stay, will we eventually stamp out the insurgency, or will our provocative presence merely ensure that the violence never ends? What do The Citizens think?
I'll start off the discussion with my own proposal: we set a clear date of April 10th and call all U.S. forces from Iraq home by that date. (The festive holiday celebrating the birth of Mohammed will be officially observed on the next day--April 11, 2006--so it seems an auspicious time for Iraq to make a new beginning.) Here is my reasoning.
1. I believe the U.S. presence has become an agitating force in Iraq. So long as we are there, the violence will never end and the Iraqi government will never be seen as legitimate by the Iraqi people. In fact, if we stay long enough, we will completely de-legitimize the current government and the insurgency may have time to provide a viable alternative, and there may erupt a real civil war. Continuing the occupation is a dead-end. We cannot fix all that is wrong in Iraq. The Iraqis have to do it themselves.
2. Yes, there probably will be greater violence after we leave. Things probably will get worse before they get better. But I do not believe a full scale civil war will erupt. I believe the Iraqi government will win out. The insurgency is fractured and its ranks swell with foreign nationals. It also resorts to kidnapping, terrorism, and other criminal behavior. While this has given them the ability to continue the fight against us, it has also assured that once the rallying point for their hatred is gone, they will be not be perceived as a viable alternative to the current government. The only real horse to back in Iraq right now is the Iraqi government, and I think most Iraqis will realize that. A steady infusion of cash from the West should seal the deal.
3. Some say we should use milestones instead of a timetable, but I believe using milestones is a mistake because it effectively hands control of our exit strategy to the insurgents. It will also be seen as wishy-washy, since there is always wiggle room with milestones. We will not be believed.
4. Some argue for a phased withdrawal, but I believe that by dragging it out over months, it really would look like a protracted retreat as we suffer mounting losses by our increasingly outnumbered troops. By setting a handover date and sticking to it--instead of just signing the papers and sneaking out of the country a day early like Paul Bremer did--we show that we are not afraid of the insurgents. It is a sign of strength and confidence in the Iraqi government.
5. Full withdrawal by a set date is a clear, simple alternative policy. It has immediate benefits (troops come home!) and enables us to save a lot of money, too.
It's time to take our hands off the bike and let the Iraqi people show that they can ride--we can't be parents forever. It's time to show faith in the democratic process we have set up; it's time to show that we believe the Iraqi government is strong enough and legitimate enough to successfully take on the insurgents. And it's time to show that the U.S. is not going to let car-bombs dicate our policy anymore.
We've kicked out Saddam and set up a democracy, and to say we must stay longer in vain hope of "finishing the job" is entirely the wrong message. Our job is done. It is time to go home.