Editorial: The false trichotomy of Iraq

Much is being written and said about the three supposed options facing the U.S. in Iraq: “Go big, go long or go home.” This formulation represents a misleading simplification in suggesting either a massive increase in troops in preparation for a withdrawal by a date certain, digging in for a lengthy staged withdrawal as Iraqi forces become self-supporting, or pulling up stakes now and leaving, come what may. This is the false trichotomy at the heart of the Iraq debate.

In fact, there are only two options available to the U.S.: Either we do whatever is necessary to ensure a successful outcome — a stabilized, peaceful and democratic Iraq — or we call it quits and leave. As military historian and American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Frederick Kagan argues, there is no “third way out of Iraq.”

Thanks to the lack of sustained, in-depth, on-the-ground reporting by U.S. media, there is too little understanding of two underlying facts Kagan highlights. First, the U.S. has purposely held back from conducting a sustained, coordinated and uncompromising campaign against the terrorist insurgency. Emphasis has been placed on training Iraqi army and police units that aren’t dependent on the U.S. presence.

Second, the Iraqis have failed to establish the essential governmental infrastructure required to sustain independent military and police units and to nurture democratic practices and institutions. Here lies the key reason the U.S. faces so difficult a task now: We want to turn over the war to the Iraqis, but they simply haven’t developed the requisite institutional and operational maturity.

For these reasons, a precipitate U.S. withdrawal — the “go home” option — would plunge Iraq into years of sectarian violence and bloodshed, while creating a new safe zone for terrorists to train, plan and prepare for their murderous assaults elsewhere in the Middle East, in Europe and here in America. This outcome would be disastrous for the U.S. Similarly flawed is the “go long” option — steadily reducing U.S. troops while progressively turning over responsibility to unprepared Iraqi army and police units — because it would merely create the same grisly consequences as “go home,” but in slow motion. Either way, the U.S. ends up with humiliation in Iraq and quite possibly a defeat in the war on terrorism from which we cannot recover.

This leaves “Go big” as the stark choice we face. The insurgency must be rooted out and destroyed, and we must do whatever is necessary to ensure that outcome. Then Iraqis can grow sustainable military and police units as well as endure democratic institutions. Let us not forget that our own ancestors struggled unsuccessfully during their war for independence to create sustainable democratic institutions; it was not until peace was assured that the effort succeeded. Even then, it took two constitutions and eight years of trying. Surely more patience is due the war-weary Iraqi people.

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