Set a Date to Pull Out

James B. Steinberg and
James B. Steinberg Former Brookings Expert, University Professor, Social Science, International Affairs, and Law - Maxwell School, Syracuse University
Michael E. O’Hanlon

May 18, 2004

American policy in Iraq faces a crisis. Mainstream U.S. political leaders, including President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry, have continued to insist that we must “stay the course” and that “failure is not an option.” But these slogans are not enough to rescue a failing policy. The success of our mission has depended from the outset on the perception by the Iraqi people that our presence is necessary to secure their own future. Today that premise is increasingly in doubt.

Unless we restore the Iraqi people’s confidence in our role, failure is not only an option but a likelihood. Critical to achieving our goal is an announced decision to end the current military deployment by the end of next year, following the Iraqi adoption of a constitution, together with greatly intensified training for the Iraqi security forces. Otherwise, the issue may well be not how long we want to stay but how soon the Iraqis kick us out.

From the beginning the administration’s strategy assumed that the United States would be welcomed as “liberators” by most Iraqis. Yet the failure of the U.S.-led provisional authority to provide basic security for many, and the slow pace of reconstruction, has eroded support for our presence. The Abu Ghraib outrages and the recent escalation of fighting have further undermined our position. A majority of Iraqis now believe their country is worse off than before Saddam Hussein was overthrown, according to a recent poll.

This dramatic loss of support undermines the legitimacy of our continued military presence. It also makes our task of stabilizing the country nearly impossible.

The problem is compounded by our own ambivalence about the political transition in Iraq. Although we defined our mission as liberation, we have been deeply reluctant to trust the Iraqi people to set their own course. From the decision to install a handpicked interim governing council, to our initial reluctance to support early elections for the limited authority we plan to grant the transition government after June 30, the message is that we will not permit self-determination in Iraq until Iraqis choose a government that meets our goal: a Western-style democracy broadly supportive of U.S. interests in the region.

That objective was wildly ambitious even before the military operation began; today it is simply unattainable in the near term. The more we talk about staying “as long as it takes” the more it appears we are trying to impose our vision on Iraq—further alienating the Iraqi public. The danger is not that we will cut and run but that the Iraqis will insist that we get out, leaving behind a security vacuum that could ignite civil war and wider regional strife.

How can we avoid such a disaster? First, we must make clear that our military presence in Iraq is designed to permit the Iraqis to freely choose their own future—even if it is not fully to our liking. We should indicate not just that we will leave if asked but that we will ourselves plan to end the deployment of coalition forces following the election of an Iraqi government and the adoption of a new constitution next year. We should make clear that we (as part of a wider international coalition) would be prepared to stay beyond that time—but only at the request of the new Iraqi government, and as part of a new, U.N.-sponsored mandate on terms that are acceptable to the new Iraqi government and to us.

Second, we must be clear about our legitimate security interests in Iraq. We have a right to insist that a new Iraqi government not threaten peace and security—by developing weapons of mass destruction, harboring terrorists or attacking other nations. And we should certainly seek to use our influence to encourage a tolerant, pluralist society. But because this is a responsibility Iraq owes to all, not just us, we should shift the focus away from the United States as the enforcement arm of the international community to Iraq’s neighbors and others that share these interests, including NATO and the United Nations. We should begin by convening a major international summit on Iraq, involving not only Western allies but also Arab leaders and Iraqis, at the time of the NATO summit next month in Istanbul. And we should invite the International Atomic Energy Agency to play a role in ensuring that a new Iraqi government does not pursue weapons programs.

Third, we should accelerate the training and equipping of new security forces for Iraq. Less than 10 percent of the necessary numbers of soldiers and police have been properly trained to date. Filling this vacuum is critical to the success of this strategy, because indigenous forces are far more likely than foreign forces to succeed in defeating the residual Baathist and foreign fighters in Iraq. If Arab countries and NATO devoted just 10 percent of their police and military training capacity to Iraqi forces, we could complete an intensified training process by next year.

Some will see this as cut-and-run. It is not. Unlike the case with most previous stabilization missions, our own enduring commitment to success in Iraq is beginning to work against us. It breeds cynicism among Iraqis that we are like the colonialists of old, planning to stay indefinitely to keep our hands on their oil and to use Iraq for our own, broader foreign policy objectives. The lesson of our history is that our best partners are those who freely choose to be. We must give the Iraqis the opportunity to seize that possibility for themselves.