The Fine Art of Withdrawal

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The main question about the war in Iraq was never whether it would go well or go badly. The question was whether it would go bad fast or go bad slowly. So far, it has gone bad slowly, which was always the greater probability. But the possibility remains that it could go bad fast. The greatest likelihood may be during that most delicate of military arts, the withdrawal.

At least behind closed doors, a consensus is emerging in Washington that America will leave Iraq in 2006. Whether the White House will accept that consensus or resist it is yet to be seen, but the result will be the same either way. At this point, the Bush administration has about as much credibility on Capitol Hill as Napoleon had in Paris after Waterloo. On the House side particularly, where every seat is up next November, the watchword is sauve qui peut. As Dr. Johnson said, being about to be hanged concentrates the mind wonderfully.

A Rumsfeld OSD that assumed the war would be easy may also assume a withdrawal will be easy. History offers a note of caution. In war, getting in is often simpler and safer than getting out. Martin van Creveld recently warned that America’s withdrawal from Iraq could prove messy, for Americans as well as Iraqis. Xenophon’s Anabasis might serve as a useful if not entirely encouraging preview. The 10,000 did make it back to Greece, most of them anyway, but few enjoyed the journey.

What scenarios should our planners and policy-makers consider? As the best case, logic suggests that Iraq’s December elections might be seen by Iraq’s "key man," Shiite Ayatollah Sistani, as the turning point. A new, Shiite-dominated government will probably be elected to a four-year term. What better move for him than to issue a fatwa saying that it’s time for the Americans to leave? His Shiites are getting restive at the American presence, he has to compete for his leadership role with firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr, and as the man who kicked the foreign occupiers out, he could reach across Iraq’s central divide to offer a deal to the Sunnis, perhaps restoring a real Iraqi state. In the face of a Sistani fatwa, Iraq’s government would almost certainly have to ask the American troops to leave.

Our response should be, "Hallelujah!" This would give us the golden bridge we need, a way out where we could claim with at least some credibility that we were not beaten. It would also probably mean a relatively safe and orderly exit. The Bush administration has said we would leave if the Iraqis asked us to, and the new U.N. resolution under which our presence in Iraq is authorized requires us to do so. If the White House resisted, it would get trampled into the dirt on Capitol Hill by elephants and donkeys alike.

As the worst case, we should envision what might happen if Israel or the U.S. or both attack Iran. Israel has recently indicated that unless international efforts to secure Iran’s nuclear program succeed, an Israeli military action is likely sometime next year. Iran has said publicly that it will regard an Israeli attack as an attack by America also. If Iran’s influence in Shiite southern Iraq is as great as reports suggest it is, the obvious Iranian response would be to blow up the magazine by attacking the American lines of supply — and withdrawal — that come up from Kuwait. Add a Shiite insurgency to that of the Sunnis, and an American withdrawal could start to look like Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, with sand substituting for snow.

There are of course a wide range of possibilities between these two extremes. An American withdrawal might lead to a truce with nationalist elements of the Iraqi resistance; they would have succeeded in their objective and would have no need to continue fighting us. Jihadi elements, however, might redouble their efforts, both to humiliate the Americans and to prevent the emergence of a real Iraqi state. In Shiite country, a lot of young men might think it’s now or never if they want a piece of the glory of having fought the world’s greatest superpower. Muqtada al-Sadr might turn his Mahdi Army loose on us again, as part of his bid for power in a post-American Iraq.

As I wrote in an earlier column, the question of how we withdraw from Iraq should be at the top of the Grossgeneralstab’s planning tasks. If the same kinds of optimistic assumptions that guided our invasion of Iraq also shape our plans for withdrawal, we could find ourselves in what one old Pentagon planner used to call "a fine kettle of fish."

William Lind [send him mail] is Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation. The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Lind, writing in his personal capacity.

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