Early in the deliberations of the Iraq Study Group (ISG), the blue-ribbon panel created by Congress this past spring and chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker III and former Congressman Lee Hamilton, Hamilton called for a show of hands among the forty-four experts advising the group, most of them veteran US military, intelligence and foreign policy officials. On the table, according to an insider, were two options. The first, which by then had come to be known as Option 3, called for an all-out effort by the United States to stabilize Baghdad, suppress the insurgency and strengthen Iraq’s army and police forces. The second, Option 4, was what opponents term the “cut and run” approach, disguised as an orderly redeployment of the 140,000 US troops in Iraq back home or to neighboring countries.

The vote, which took place late this past summer, was lopsided. Only two people voted for Option 4. Despite evidence that Iraq is enmeshed in a civil war that is killing more than 3,000 Iraqis every month, the group’s best and brightest weren’t ready to face the need to get out. For them, Option 4 meant defeat–a recognition that the entire American project in Iraq was a failure. Not only that, but many of the experts believed that an American pullout would inevitably lead to increased civil conflict. “The fear was that Iraq could be facing a horrific civil war that leaves a million dead,” says one ISG expert. Such a conflict could create a black hole that pulls in Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other neighbors, igniting a regional conflagration. Says the ISG adviser: “Option 4 was just too horrible to contemplate.”

By fall, however, opinion within the ISG had shifted radically. After months of glumly sorting through the bleak options for Iraq, another vote between the two strategies was taken–and this time the ISG divided nearly down the middle. “The vote was about 50-50,” says the participant. For half the ISG’s experts, at least, reality had begun to sink in.

Indeed, over the past year or so, the American foreign policy establishment has slowly started to come to grips with the fact that the Iraq War is lost. Despite the costs–$350 billion, nearly 3,000 American lives and several hundred thousand Iraqi lives–the Bush Administration and the military have no formula that can create an Iraq that even approximates the Administration’s vision. And so, from every direction–a new White House task force under the supervision of the National Security Council, a Pentagon review under Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Gen. Peter Pace, newly empowered Democrats on Capitol Hill, a host of Washington and New York think tanks and elsewhere–plans for how to disengage from Iraq are under way.

First among equals, and the one that most politicians and pundits are waiting for, is the Baker-Hamilton task force. Bipartisan, and relentlessly realist in its composition, the ISG is widely expected to set the tone for debate on Iraq in 2007. Still, like its experts, the ISG members themselves are reportedly sharply divided about whether to recommend a phased withdrawal of US forces. Even if it does reach agreement, its conclusions might be rejected by the White House. And for Democrats on the Hill, the Baker-Hamilton report is likely to be the start, rather than the end, of a long debate, replete with Democratic-led Congressional hearings and a search for a bipartisan accord.

Option 3.5: The ‘Surge’

As the second straw vote at the ISG showed, support for some version of what Bush used to talk of as “staying the course”–perhaps through one last push in Iraq to secure, if not victory, then some level of stability–lingers on, and not just among neoconservatives.

Finding itself divided between Option 3, aimed at using military force and diplomacy to stabilize Iraq, and Option 4, the phased withdrawal of US troops, the ISG developed what insiders call “Option 3.5.” According to this plan, the United States would engage in a sudden, expanded occupation–adding between 20,000 and 50,000 more troops–in a yearlong effort to suppress violence in Baghdad and strengthen Iraq’s army and police force in order to create a strong central government. If, at the end of that period, things haven’t improved, the Bush Administration would transition to Option 4.

Proponents of such an idea include Senator John McCain, who is loudly suggesting that the Pentagon dispatch at least 20,000 troops to beef up the 140,000 already in Iraq. Such an idea appeals to many hard-liners on Iraq, including neoconservatives such as Frederick Kagan, a military affairs expert at the American Enterprise Institute, who has spent hours closeted with President Bush. Kagan has proposed “surging 50,000 more troops–with the equipment they need–into Iraq in the coming weeks and months.” And a variant of such a plan is reportedly under study by General Pace of the Joint Chiefs. According to the Washington Post, Pace is considering sending up to 30,000 troops “for a short period,” at the end of which the military would implement “a long-term plan to radically cut the presence, perhaps to 60,000 troops.”

To many opponents of the war, Option 3.5 appears to be just a warmed-over version of “stay the course,” if not in fact an escalation. Additional forces provide no guarantee that a transition to a reduced presence, or to a withdrawal, would ever take place. Moreover, such a decision would fly in the face of voters’ expectations after November 7, and it would provoke an outcry from Democrats on the Hill. And, according to the commander of the US Central Command, Gen. John Abizaid, there are two other major flaws with Option 3.5: The United States does not have the troops available to sustain such a push, and the Iraqi government is opposed. “The Iraqis have a view about more US troops coming on their territory,” Abizaid told Senator John Thune during hearings of the Armed Services Committee on November 15. “They are not very much in favor of that.”

Finally, according to a host of experts, there is no assurance that a troop increase would succeed. Wayne White, an ISG adviser who until last year was the State Department’s chief intelligence officer on Iraq, says that even a “more robust surge” than McCain’s “would have far less than a 50-50 chance of succeeding,” since “no one has any practical notion as to how to turn the police into a security asset, as opposed to the seriously corrupt, militia-dominated liability they have become.” And among other problems, he says, “the writ of the Iraqi government we have fashioned extends little beyond the Green Zone,” with scant hope of establishing governance beyond it.

For all these reasons, it’s not likely that the ISG will support Option 3.5, and it is nearly impossible that it would win any support on Capitol Hill, either from Democrats or from mainstream Republicans. Which brings us to Plan B.

Exit Strategies

In the ISG, among think tanks and political analysts, in offices on Capitol Hill, inside the Pentagon and elsewhere, the overriding question is: If the United States must leave Iraq, and if President Bush’s vaunted strategy for victory has collapsed, then how can America depart while doing the least additional damage–to Iraq and, equally important, to America’s self-image? For some, the gloomy answer is that just as the US forces rampaged into Iraq, shattering the Iraqi state and unleashing chaos, it is just as likely that they will leave a worsening disaster behind them. “Having blundered our way into Iraq, we’ll probably blunder out of it, too,” says Charles Freeman, an ISG adviser who served as US ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

Those looking for a plausible strategy for exiting Iraq call that idea Plan B–Plan A having been the neocon-led notion that postinvasion Iraq would be transformed into a pro-American outpost in the heart of the Middle East.

But rather than one Plan B, there are many. Although they differ in details–whether or not to set a specific timetable, how fast to withdraw our forces and what sort of presence, if any, the United States ought to maintain after withdrawing the bulk of its troops–they still have a lot in common.

Some of the Plan Bs being circulated in Washington support withdrawal of all US forces within a few months. Democratic Representative Dennis Kucinich has called for Congress to cut off funding for the war and use money in the pipeline to bring the troops home immediately, though he isn’t specific on how long that might take. Democratic Senator Russ Feingold has proposed legislation to require the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq by July 1, 2007. Senator John Kerry has called for getting all US forces out of Iraq in six to eight months. And Representative John Murtha, the military-connected Democrat who has emerged as his party’s chief spokesman for getting US forces out of Iraq, proposes to “immediately redeploy US troops consistent with the safety of US forces.” By adding that last condition, Murtha makes it clear that a pullout would be prolonged, in order to assure that the United States does not suffer high casualties in retreat. Given the logistical and security difficulties tied to withdrawal, nearly all such proposals would require at least six months to a year.

Yet among the foreign policy elite and for most members of Congress, that is too fast. Other plans propose a slower pace, and they are divided on whether to set a deadline or a specific timetable for withdrawal. Many suggest a drawdown over a period of eighteen to twenty-four months. Perhaps the most widely circulated Plan B is “Strategic Redeployment 2.0,” issued in May by the Center for American Progress, a Democratic think tank, and written by Lawrence Korb, an Assistant Secretary of Defense during the Reagan Administration, and Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the center. In it, they propose a withdrawal of 9,000 US troops a month over eighteen months, reducing force levels to “virtually zero,” and retaining a limited force for things such as training Iraqi forces and counterterrorism. The redeployment plan has been widely circulated among both Democrats and Republicans on the Hill, where it is seen as a serious effort to grapple with the details of a pullout.

But its authors are the first to admit that they haven’t won majority support for setting a timetable even among Democrats. Many, says Katulis, support Senator Carl Levin’s proposal to begin a pullout “in four to six months,” though Levin does not propose a specific deadline for completing it. In late July, Katulis notes, all twelve Democratic leaders in Congress–including Levin, Murtha and the incoming leaders of the Senate and House, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi–wrote a letter to Bush that called for a “phased redeployment of US forces,” efforts to achieve national reconciliation inside the country and an international conference on stabilizing Iraq–but without a timetable. “There’s a consensus emerging,” says Katulis. That consensus, typified by Levin–who got forty Democratic votes for it earlier this year in the Senate–is for a slow but steady withdrawal without an end date, backed by intense diplomacy.

A parallel plan that has gotten wide attention among moderate Democrats comes from Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser, who says he has been in close contact with Democratic Congressional leaders. Brzezinski says that if the United States communicates unambiguously to Iraq’s factions that it intends to leave, then departure could be presented as a joint decision by Baghdad and Washington, and could be completed rapidly. “I would shoot for twelve months,” he says. “Those Iraqis who say we should stay indefinitely are the ones who will leave when we leave.”

“We should announce that we support Iraq’s national unity and that we have no intention of having permanent bases in the country,” says David Mack, a veteran US diplomat who served two tours in Iraq and who is an adviser to the ISG. “And to make it clear that we are not just talking, have a small but significant withdrawal right away.” That, says Mack, who is acting president of the Middle East Institute, would accelerate half-hearted steps already under way in Iraq to reverse the draconian de-Baathification law, bring former Iraqi officers back into the army and establish an effective dialogue with Iraq’s resistance.

The United States has conducted a dialogue with the Sunni insurgents, but it has foundered over Washington’s unwillingness to commit itself to a timetable for a withdrawal, as the insurgents demand. Such talks are missing from most of the Plan B approaches, which rely on getting Iraq’s neighbors together to help stabilize the country as America withdraws.

Baker and Hamilton, during appearances at the US Institute of Peace and elsewhere, have made it clear that engaging Iran and Syria in Iraq’s future is essential. Iran gives money and weapons to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, whose Badr Organization provides much of the muscle for the current Shiite-dominated government and whose forces control most of Iraq’s cities in the south. Syria maintains important, though covert, ties to Iraq’s nationalist resistance, including to former leaders of the deposed Iraqi Baath Party. Another of Iraq’s neighbors is Saudi Arabia, which has enormous clout with the tribal leaders of western Iraq, many of whom are related to the Saudi royal family. And the Turks are fearful that Iraq’s Kurds will establish an independent state, which could trigger greater unrest among Turkey’s own Kurdish population.

But the White House is resisting cooperation with Syria and Iran, in part because to win their help would require Washington to make major concessions. Syria wants to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, secure the return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and avoid renewed civil war in Lebanon. To get Iran’s support would require the United States to compromise on Tehran’s right to enrich uranium and to give assurances that it does not seek regime change in Iran.

In addition to all of these ideas, two other notions are floating around Washington in regard to leaving Iraq.

The first is partition. The most vocal proponent of partitioning Iraq into three components (Kurdistan in the north, a Sunni state in the center and a Shiite republic in the south) is Peter Galbraith, a former US diplomat and author of The End of Iraq, who also serves as a consultant to the Kurds. Indeed, says Galbraith, the ISG has to understand that Iraq is already effectively partitioned. Supporting Galbraith’s notion, though more modestly, are Senator Joseph Biden and Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations.

But the partition idea is anathema to virtually all experts on Iraq, who call it a formula for permanent conflict among three mini-states, and one that would accelerate bloodletting and ethnic cleansing in Iraq’s urban areas. Partition is included in none of the major Plan Bs. It has been explicitly rejected by Baker and Hamilton, and it is strongly opposed by the White House.

The second idea is a coup d’état in Iraq and the replacement of the current feeble regime of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki with a strongman or a “government of national salvation.” For nearly a year, rumors about a coup have circulated in Baghdad. In the Iraqi and Arab media, there have been reports of contacts between US military or CIA officers and Iraqi generals in Amman, Cairo and elsewhere. At least one proposal circulated to the members of the Baker-Hamilton task force specifically mentioned the possibility of a coup. “One scenario is, the Iraqis do it themselves–some Iraqi colonel who’s fed up with the whole thing, who takes over the country,” says a former CIA officer with wide experience in the Middle East. “The other side of the coin is, we do it ourselves, find some general up in Ramadi or somewhere, and help him take over. And he’d declare a state of emergency and crack down. And he’d ask us to leave–that would be our exit strategy.” Salah al-Mukhtar, a former Iraqi ambassador to India who maintains close ties to Iraq’s resistance, says that several Iraqi generals in Amman have already agreed to take part in a coup. And many experts on Iraq suggest that ordinary Iraqis, weary of the unending violence and lack of basic services, would welcome the emergence of a strongman regime.

No US official, think tank or strategist, however, is likely to go on the record proposing a coup. In the view of nearly all analysts, a coup, however tempting it might be to old CIA hands seeking an easy exit route, would make things worse, not better. Not only is there no obvious candidate for such a role, but, a former State Department official adds, “In order to mount a coup, you have to have a state. And there is no state in Iraq.” There is, however, a government. But there is no reason to support it, since it is the result of a process imposed by the United States and enjoys little if any credibility in the eyes of Iraqis.

So, to sum up: None of the Plan Bs being considered condone partition or a coup; nearly all do involve a phased withdrawal over perhaps two years, a plan to involve Iraq’s six neighbors in helping to damp down the civil war, an international conference to provide economic aid, peacekeeping forces, political help and a strong US-led effort to train Iraq’s army and police forces.

The Politics of Exiting Iraq

Signs that both Democrats and Republicans have gotten the message of the November 7 elections, widely seen as a mandate on Iraq, abound. “The American people have spoken with regard to their deep concern about the loss of life, the loss of limb, the enormity of expenditures, the credibility of our country,” said Senator John Warner, Republican chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in mid-November. Together with Senator Levin, the panel’s incoming Democratic chair, Warner–who returned from Iraq in October to tell reporters that Iraq was going “sideways”–says he intends to develop a bipartisan plan to find a formula for Iraq. Indeed, it was Warner–together with Representative Frank Wolf, a fellow Virginia Republican, and a quartet of mainstream think tanks–who helped create the Iraq Study Group in the first place.

Among the Democrats, it appears that many (if not all) have absorbed the impact of the electoral mandate on Iraq. “We cannot continue down this catastrophic path,” said Nancy Pelosi, who will be Speaker of the House, within hours of the results. At a recent briefing, I asked Senator Harry Reid, the incoming majority leader, how strongly the Democrats would push the White House on Iraq. “The President has been unwilling to listen to other ideas,” Reid answered. “He didn’t give Senator [Dick] Durbin and me a lot of reason for hope. [But] we are not going to back down on this.”

Still, for the past three years the Democrats have been badly divided on Iraq: Many of them voted for the war, and their ranks are shot through with prowar right-wingers, not to mention the revived neocon Joe Lieberman. But if they intend to retain or expand their solid majority in the House and their razor-thin majority in the Senate in 2008, the Democrats can’t ignore voters’ demands. They must thunder from the pulpit against Republicans who want to “stay the course,” while scrutinizing every Pentagon budget request and holding investigative hearings into war crimes, abuses, cost overruns and mismanagement.

Among Republicans, the calculations are different, but the results could be similar. Many Republicans are in full panic mode about 2008. If, in the summer of 2008, the war in Iraq is still raging and the GOP runs a prowar candidate (think John McCain), they will almost certainly suffer yet another landslide loss. For that reason, Republican senators like Warner, Chuck Hagel and Richard Lugar–not to mention the Bush 41 realists led by Baker–want to take Iraq off the table by the end of next year.

Over the next few weeks, there will be several markers by which voters can judge how the political class is responding to the November elections. First will be the Baker-Hamilton ISG report and the responses to it by Democrats, Congressional Republicans and the White House. Another is the seriousness of Democratic-led investigative hearings into Iraq, along with a report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on prewar intelligence about Iraq’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and ties to Al Qaeda. Yet another is what Congress does about the upcoming Administration request to fund the war through October 2007, expected to total somewhere in the range of $127 billion to $160 billion. The debate over that request will provide the Democrats with further ammunition to undermine the White House’s arguments for staying the course.

Senate Democrats will get several other chances to pillory the Administration’s Iraq War effort. The first will come in December, at hearings to confirm former CIA Director Robert Gates as Defense Secretary. Gates, who until his nomination was one of ten members of the Iraq Study Group, will be questioned long and hard about his views on Iraq. And then both the House and Senate will hold extensive hearings to evaluate the ISG’s report.

Finally, expect major initiatives from the State Department and the intelligence community. At State, Zalmay Khalilzad, our neocon ambassador to Iraq, may be replaced soon by Ryan Crocker, an Arabist currently serving in Pakistan who is on record as an early opponent of the war. Meanwhile, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is preparing a National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, to be published before the end of the year, that is almost certain to describe the situation in terms far bleaker than those used by the Bush Administration.

The ISG recommendations will set the tone for the debate on getting out of Iraq, but it is unlikely that its report will provide the final roadmap. Its ideas, as well as those from the parallel review under way at the White House, General Pace’s review, the Democrats’ own plan to begin a withdrawal within four to six months and other efforts will all commingle within the framework of Congressional politics. Should the ISG endorse “phased redeployment,” it will turn Washington on its head, provoke a major showdown with Vice President Cheney and unleash the most freewheeling debate over US foreign policy since the 1960s.