As of the summer of 2005, the public perception is that we have two broad options, neither very attractive. The first would be to deepen our commitment to securing the country, ensuring the safety of Iraqi citizens, restoring the country's economy, and creating and mentoring a professional bureaucracy capable of delivering government services. We would deploy more troops in order to seal and guard the country's borders and to force the necessary compromises on the different factions to establish stability and a working democracy. This way forward would entail years of anti-American violence, but if a successful Iraq emerged at the end of this bloody process, views of the United States just might be transformed as the altruism of our sacrifice became apparent. At that point, we would have a regional democratic ally and perhaps a rehabilitated relationship with the Muslim world.
The other course would resemble the one we are on. It would emphasize Iraqiization--that is, the rapid training and deployment of Iraqi security forces to maintain order; the formation of a predominantly Kurdish and Shiite military alliance against the Sunni rejectionists; the gradual drawdown of large U.S. military formations, first to cantonments to reduce their visibility and exposure to attack, and then out of the country, leaving a much smaller number of American troops in an advisory capacity.
The problem is that we have only the appearance of two options; the first one is no longer available to us. Ambassador James Dobbins, a retired diplomat known to colleagues as "our failed-state man" for his work in Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, and now a leading analyst of America's role in Iraq, argues convincingly that we have lost the war for public opinion in Iraq--a judgment he makes on the basis of a range of polling data and wealth of reporting. He, like many other careful observers, questions the notion that deeper engagement will yield results. Moreover, the United States lacks the capacity to provide the forces necessary for this option. As a political matter, the risks of deeper involvement will likely make such a course unpalatable to a Republican Party facing midterm elections in 2006 and a general election two years after that.
The second option, therefore, is the only realistic one. We must accept the fact that a policy based on relatively rapid withdrawal is necessary to limit the damage we have already incurred. The question of pace is important. But there is a good chance that this course will carry its own penalties, especially because our departure will be trumpeted as a strategic defeat inflicted by jihadists on the American paper tiger. It will also be a tragedy for Iraq if, as seems likely, sectarian violence escalates as we draw down and Shiite and Kurdish militias begin the grisly task of destroying the Sunni resistance. While Iraq bleeds, the United States will be stigmatized throughout the Sunni world as a vile oppressor collaborating with a vengeful Shiite population. (Already, the prevailing view among Arabs is that the United States entered Iraq with the purpose of instigating a civil war as a way to weaken the umma and plunder Iraq's riches, another echo of bin Laden's argument.) The long-standing hostile U.S. policy towards Iran, however, ensures that we will get no benefit from this anti-Sunni alliance in Shiite public opinion. The bottom line is simply that perceptions of our aims and actions in Iraq will be difficult to reshape for the better and will likely get worse.
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