George W. Bush is right about one thing with regard to the Iraq occupation: There will be no “graceful exit” from the disaster he has created. No matter when the last US troops leave the quagmire, there will be disorder and violence. But if the new Democratic Congress is serious about resolving the crisis, it will not embrace the “strategy” for reordering rather than ending the occupation being advanced by the Iraq Study Group. The November elections were a resounding popular consensus against the war and for an exit strategy, and yet unelected pundits and think tankers are already declaring that, as a recent New York Times article put it, “a major and rapid withdrawal seems to be fading as a viable option.”
Democrats should not cede their popular mandate to the murky consensus of the Baker-Hamilton report, which equivocates on the alternative to prolonged war–speaking of “one last chance” to “succeed.” Certainly, the panel’s proposed gradual pullback of fifteen US combat brigades by early 2008 is a welcome alternative to the neocons’ and Administration’s failed and delusional policies. But there is no hard deadline attached to the recommendations; furthermore, the Iraq Study Group envisions keeping at least 70,000 troops in Iraq for the long term–maintaining a lower-visibility occupation rather than ending it. Even worse, it recommends “embedding” US troops with Iraqi units; in an environment where Iraqi army and police are increasingly identified with sectarian militias, this risks making US troops direct participants in Iraq’s civil war–and what retired Lieut. Col. Ralph Peters called “hostages in uniform.”
If the Democrats who take charge in January want to find good judgment and better alternatives, they should look to the many members of the party’s House and Senate caucuses who voted in October 2002 against authorizing Bush to use force in Iraq. That includes the majority of House Democrats, among them incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the incoming chairs of several powerful committees. Almost half the Senate Democrats did the same. As Walter Pincus reported in the Washington Post–which gave scant coverage in 2002 to the prescient reasons provided by Democrats that fall for opposing the war–it is time to recognize that early opponents like Representative Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin “asked questions that are being widely considered today: ‘Are we prepared to keep 100,000 or more troops in Iraq to maintain stability there?'”
While it is true that the Democratic leadership has yet to settle on a coherent exit strategy, many members have taken political risks to oppose the war from the start. And the positions for which they were once attacked are now becoming conventional wisdom. Indeed, the most valuable contributions of the Iraq Study Group report are its recognition that the situation in Iraq is “grave and deteriorating,” that it is time to begin withdrawing at least some US troops, that the Bush Administration must engage Syria and Iran in regional talks on how to end the fighting and that any serious response to the region’s challenges must include a renewed focus on establishing a just and lasting peace in Israel-Palestine.
By offering the prospect of some change, the Iraq Study Group report may well take the pressure off politicians to call for complete withdrawal before the 2008 presidential campaign. Citizens who seek a quicker timeline and a genuine military disengagement from Iraq must make their voices heard if US policy is to move beyond the half-measures set out by the panel.