Boston Globe: Lesser evils and an exit strategy
Boston Globe
July 10, 2007

PUBLIC OPINION and the open dissent of more and more Republican senators are forcing the Bush administration to reconsider its military strategy in Iraq -- and its vague, dilatory timetable for troop reductions. The time has come for President Bush to face reality. The key decisions he must make now are not about staying the course, but about the best ways to reduce the numbers and the combat role of US troops.

It is pointless for Bush to go on complaining that the commanding general in Iraq, David Petraeus, needs more time to make his clear-and-hold operations in Baghdad work, or that the electoral anxieties of congressional incumbents should not determine US policy in Iraq. A virtue of the democratic system Bush has sought to export to the Middle East is that, at regular intervals, it allows the people to call their representatives to account.

Bush's war of choice in Iraq is now in its fifth year. The military cannot sustain current force rotations beyond next spring and the benchmarks for progress set out in legislation this past spring are not being met. The need to craft the least calamitous exit strategy cannot be postponed any longer. Indeed, the longer Bush refuses to start planning for the endgame in Iraq, the narrower the options and the more daunting the task.

Current US counter insurgency tactics may have established tolerable security in some parts of Baghdad. But like other guerrilla groups in other insurgencies, the suicide bombers of the extremist group Al Qaeda in Iraq have flowed around US troop concentrations. Their massacres of Iraqi Shi'ite civilians in other towns offer a preview of what is almost sure to happen after US troops begin transferring security to the Iraqi Army.

The reality that has to be confronted is that the disparate armed groups in Iraq will go on committing atrocities against civilians as US troops begin withdrawing, and a residual American force hunkers down in a few well-guarded bases. Should the mayhem reach a certain point, Iraq's neighbors will come under pressure to intervene, if not directly, then by proxy. There is also a possibility that Iraq will devolve into a chronic failed state in the mode of Somalia. And Iranian influence may grow, at least in the south of Iraq, in proportion to the sectarian mayhem.

Nevertheless, America's time as an occupying power in Iraq has run out. Bush should now follow the core advice of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group. He should seek agreement from the surrounding powers to act in their own interest by combating Al Qaeda in Iraq militants, in helping end the sectarian violence, and in assisting with reconciliation and rehabilitation.

This strategy will require the kind of deal-making with nasty neighbors that Bush has so far rejected. But he has no other options.

© Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.

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