During a White House meeting last week, a group of governors asked President Bush and Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about their backup plan for Iraq. What would the administration do if its new strategy didn't work?Is there a Plan B? Or is it the same old story, the failure to publicly admit reservations isn't media strategy, but a reflection of the fact that they have no reservations? I'd like to think they've learned something in the course of the war, but the "surge" belies that. But we've learned something: not to trust the Bush administration.
The conclusion they took away, the governors later said, was that there is no Plan B. "I'm a Marine," Pace told them, "and Marines don't talk about failure. They talk about victory." Pace had a simple way of summarizing the administration's position, Gov. Phil Bredesen (D-Tenn.) recalled. "Plan B was to make Plan A work."
In the weeks since Bush announced the new plan for Iraq -- including an increase of 21,500 U.S. combat troops, additional reconstruction assistance and stepped-up pressure on the Iraqi government -- senior officials have rebuffed questions about other options in the event of failure. Eager to appear resolute and reluctant to provide fodder for skeptics, they have responded with a mix of optimism and evasion.
Fortunately, others more responsible than they are thinking about what we're going to do when the surge fails. Unfortunately, they don't agree:
Most options involve partial or complete U.S. redeployment from Baghdad and other violent urban centers, followed by containment of the civil war within Iraq's borders -- keeping out meddlesome neighbors such as Iran and preventing a wider, regional conflict. Retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, a former chief of Central Command, the U.S. military headquarters for the Middle East, said Congress is "drifting toward containment" and predicted that option will soon begin gaining popularity.It's a horrible idea. And there's no point. Deploying the troops in the center of Iraq will serve the same purpose, and 80,000 (or 150,000) aren't enough to close the borders anyway.
Daniel L. Byman and Kenneth M. Pollack of the Brookings Institution last month released the most comprehensive public exploration of containment. The two national security experts seemed to wince even as they proposed keeping up to 80,000 troops along Iraq's borders, cautioning that "there would be no end in sight either for the war or for their mission." But it is "the only rational course of action," they wrote.
Other senior military officials are skeptical of containment, fearing that it would be almost impossible to achieve and that a policy of standing back and letting Iraqis kill each other would be morally indefensible and a recruiting boon for al-Qaeda and other extremist groups. Even proponents of containment warn that it would leave U.S. troops as concentrated targets while limiting their ability to control the situation militarily.
A related option would involve redeploying U.S. forces to the relative safety of the Kurdish region in northern Iraq, to more peaceful areas in the south and to Anbar in the west, where they could focus on fighting al-Qaeda. "You can have your civil war without us," columnist Charles Krauthammer recently suggested that Bush tell Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "We will be around to pick up the pieces as best we can."And how exactly will they fight Al Qaeda but not the Sunni insurgents, if they're sitting in hostile Anbar?
Stephen Biddle, who noted that new Iraq strategy proposals "proliferate hourly" in the public domain, said another variant is to set up "heavily defended forward operating bases out in the desert somewhere [and] either sit there and mind our own business and do nothing except be present -- enabling us to say we're still there -- or, in a somewhat more activist flavor, to conduct raids of various kinds" against al-Qaeda bases and rescue missions for Iraqi military units.That's more like it. Raids can be conducted not actively, to hunt out Al Qaeda, but when solid intelligence indicates that Al Qaeda fighters are gathering in one location. Otherwise, our troops sit there and deter anyone else from messing around in Iraq (a slim possibility it's true, but a possibility nonetheless.) And they can train Iraqi troops, but only so long as they're not simply facillitating the work of death squads.
Steven N. Simon, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the NSC's director for national security threats during the Clinton administration, last month proposed U.S. disengagement from Iraq itself, calling for containment from the outside with a reinforced U.S. presence elsewhere in the region and the opening of a regional diplomatic dialogue. Those steps should be initiated immediately, Simon wrote, before the costs of the war begin to widen across the Middle East and beyond.I don't even understand that. Containment from the outside? From where? Iran? Kurdistan? Turkey? I'm not sure what our troops are supposed to do wherever else they might be stationed, as (at this time at least) there are no other active conflicts waging across the Middle East.
Anyway, as you can see, there is no end to the plans circulating around the national security world as to what to do next. None of them will end the civil war presently raging, nor will they redeem our standing in the world. But there are feasible options to keep things from getting too godawful worse, and the Bush administration ought to be talking about them.