Realists on Iraq
By Dan Senor
The Wall Street Journal
June 5, 2007; Page A23
During Sunday night's Democratic presidential debate, the candidates cited an oft-repeated source of the mess in Iraq: The White House's refusal to heed knowledgeable advice.
Indeed, it has often been said that the president got into Iraq because he disregarded advice from the true regional experts: foreign-policy “realists” who put together the Gulf War I coalition and counseled President George H.W. Bush against regime change; “moderate” Sunni Arab Governments; and the U.S. intelligence community.
But what if today these groups were actually advising against an American withdrawal?
Consider Brent Scowcroft, dean of the Realist School, who openly opposed the war from the outset and was a lead skeptic of the president's democracy-building agenda. In a recent Financial Times interview, he succinctly summed up the implication of withdrawal: “The costs of staying are visible; the costs of getting out are almost never discussed. If we get out before Iraq is stable, the entire Middle East region might start to resemble Iraq today. Getting out is not a solution.”
And here is retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, former Centcom Commander and a vociferous critic of what he sees as the administration's naive and one-sided policy in Iraq and the broader Middle East: “When we are in Iraq we are in many ways containing the violence. If we back off we give it more room to breathe, and it may metastasize in some way and become a regional problem. We don't have to be there at the same force level, but it is a five-to seven-year process to get any reasonable stability in Iraq.”
A number of Iraq's Sunni Arab neighbors also opposed the war as well as the U.S. push for liberalizing the region's authoritarian governments. Yet they now backchannel the same two priorities to Washington: Do not let Iran acquire nukes, and do not withdraw from Iraq.
A senior Gulf Cooperation Council official told me that “If America leaves Iraq, America will have to return. Soon. It will not be a clean break. It will not be a permanent goodbye. And by the time America returns, we will have all been drawn in. America will have to stabilize more than just Iraq. The warfare will have spread to other countries, governments will be overthrown. America's military is barely holding on in Iraq today. How will it stabilize 'Iraq Plus'?” (Iraq Plus is the term that some leaders in Arab capitals use to describe the region following a U.S. withdrawal.)
I heard similar warnings made repeatedly on a recent trip to almost every capital in the Persian Gulf — to some of America's closest allies and hosts of our military.
Likewise, withdrawal proponents cite career U.S. intelligence professionals as war skeptics, and not without basis. Yet here is what the U.S. intelligence community predicted in its National Intelligence Estimate early this year: “Coalition capabilities, including force levels, resources, and operations, remain an essential stabilizing element in Iraq. If Coalition forces were withdrawn rapidly during the term of this Estimate, we judge that this almost certainly would lead to a significant increase in the scale and scope of sectarian conflict in Iraq…
“If such a rapid withdrawal were to take place, we judge that the Iraqi Security Forces would be unlikely to survive as a non-sectarian national institution: neighboring countries — invited by Iraqi factions or unilaterally — might intervene openly in the conflict; massive civilian casualties and forced population displacement would be probable; Al Qaeda in Iraq would attempt to use parts of the country — particularly al-Anbar province — to plan increased attacks in and outside of Iraq; and spiraling violence and disarray in Iraq, along with Kurdish moves to control Kirkuk and strengthen autonomy, could prompt Turkey to launch a military incursion.”
If the presidential candidates go on a listening tour, it's important to consider one additional group: A number of Western reporters who have spent the past few years in Iraq.
The White House has actually been inviting Baghdad bureau reporters to the Oval Office — however belatedly — so the president can hear their observations. One of them is John Burns of the New York Times. He won Pulitzers for his coverage in Bosnia and Afghanistan before throwing himself full-bore into Iraq. This is how he described the stakes of withdrawal on “The Charlie Rose Show” recently:
“Friends of mine who are Iraqis — Shiite, Sunni, Kurd — all foresee a civil war on a scale with bloodshed that will absolutely dwarf what we're seeing now. It's really difficult to imagine that that would happen… without Iran becoming involved from the east, without the Saudis, who have already said in that situation that they would move in to help protect the Sunni minority in Iraq.
“It's difficult to see how this could go anywhere but into a much wider conflagration, with all kinds of implications for the world's flow of oil, for the state of Israel. What happens to King Abdullah in Jordan if there's complete chaos in the region?… It just seems to me that the consequences are endless, endless.”
Earlier on the same program, Mr. Burns laid out his own version of Iraq Plus. “If you pull out now, and catastrophe ensues, then it is very likely that the United States would have to come back in circumstances which, of course, would be even less favorable, one might imagine, than the ones that now confront American troops here.”
It would be one thing if only the architects of the Bush policy and their die-hard supporters opposed withdrawal. But four separate groups of knowledgeable critics — three of whom opposed going into Iraq — now describe the possible costs of withdrawal as very high.
If the Realists, neighboring Arab regimes, our intelligence community and some of the most knowledgeable reporters all say such a course could be disastrous, on what basis are the withdrawal advocates taking their position?
The American people are understandably frustrated with Iraq. But this does not mean they will be satisfied with politicians who support a path that could make matters much worse.
Mr. Senor, a former foreign policy advisor to the Bush administration, was based in Baghdad from April 2003 through June 2004. He is a founding partner of Rosemont Capital.
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