Striking the Right Balance in Iraq

Striking the Right Balance in Iraq

Three years ago this week, President Bush declared the end of major hostilities in Iraq in front of a ''mission accomplished" banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln.

But as events have demonstrated, the mission is far from accomplished. Since May 1, 2003, Iraq has suffered from daily terrorist attacks, and it teeters on the brink of civil war. The oil-rich Gulf region has become less stable, contributing to a run-up in gas prices at home and an increase in terrorist attacks around the world.

The administration's many mistakes in Iraq — invading for the wrong reasons and without enough troops, as well as not having a clear strategy for Iraq's political transition and reconstruction — have undermined US power and reputation and left us with no good options.

The key question now is: What should the United States do to minimize the damage to US interests?

Bush's ''stay-the-course" strategy in Iraq is unsustainable. Iraq's costs — about 2,400 US military personnel killed and nearly 18,000 wounded, more than $300 billion spent, and US ground forces stretched to the breaking point — are not worth the results. Being bogged down in Iraq also hampers our ability to deal with threats in Iran and Afghanistan.

And while we are sympathetic with the aims of those recommending immediate withdrawal, we believe that too hasty a withdrawal increases chances of permanently destabilizing Iraq and the region.

Expectations must change to fit today's grim realities. The administration must recognize that Iraq is not yet a real democracy, nor will it be anytime soon, and a new government in Iraq is not going to trigger a wave of democracy in the Middle East. Americans need and deserve a clear exit strategy for Iraq that spells out how much longer US troops will be involved and what it will cost. Iraq's leaders need to understand that the United States is not going to serve as a crutch indefinitely.

In a report released last fall and updated this week, we make the case for a responsible exit strategy in Iraq.

Our five-part strategy addresses the challenges the United States faces in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the broader threat by terrorist networks and extreme regimes.

The United States should announce that it will not maintain permanent bases in Iraq and that it will withdraw all its forces by the end of 2007, by gradually reducing its troop presence in Iraq to 60,000 by the end of 2006, and to zero by the end of 2007.

Troops remaining in Iraq through 2007 would train Iraqi forces, eradicate terrorist cells, provide logistical support to Iraqi forces, and provide border security. The United States should also leave an Army division in Kuwait, place a Marine expeditionary force and a carrier battle group in the Persian Gulf, and double the number of troops in Afghanistan.

The United States must recognize that Iraq has become a failed state with major internal problems, and it should take appropriate diplomatic action to bring peace and stability to Iraq. President Bush should appoint an envoy, with the stature of a former secretary of state, to organize a Geneva peace conference under UN auspices. The conference would aim to broker a deal on the division of power, security, militias, and the allocation of oil resources.

The Bush administration should launch a Gulf Stability Initiative, a multilateral diplomatic effort to develop a regional security framework for confidence building measures and regional security cooperation among countries in the region. This framework would be helpful in dealing also with the growing nuclear capabilities of Iran.

The Bush administration should correct the mistakes it made to date in its reconstruction efforts by creating an international fund to provide emergency humanitarian and economic assistance. These development projects should give priority to hiring Iraqis.

The United States should develop a more realistic strategy to confront falsehoods promoted by its extremist adversaries. The United States should make key policy shifts — including trying to stabilize the situation between Israel and Palestine.

The end goals of this strategic shift are clear: to protect the American people at home and abroad; to get Iraq to the most stable position as quickly as possible; to make sure Iraq's tensions do not spill over into a regional conflict; and to turn the tide against extremist Islamists who continue to threaten the United States nearly five years after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Lawrence Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He was assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan. Brian Katulis is director of democracy and public diplomacy at the Center for American Progress. This article was originally published in the Boston Globe on May 4, 2006.