In recent weeks, conservatives have begun distancing themselves from Bush’s failing policy in Iraq. Many of them — senators such as Richard Lugar, Pete Domenici, Lamar Alexander, and Elizabeth Dole — are finding political comfort in embracing the Iraq Study Group’s call to “change the mission” of U.S. troops in Iraq. Even the White House is considering support for the plan.
Speaking in favor of the ISG recommendations, co-chairman Lee Hamilton told NPR:
[O]ne of its merits surely was that it was bipartisan, and so far as I know, it’s the only bipartisan proposal out there. And I think it still does have a reasonable chance of bringing about a unity of effort which is required for the success of our policy in Iraq.
Stephen Biddle, a senior defense policy analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, cautions against adopting “a politically moderate ‘Plan B’ that would split the difference between surge and withdrawal.” Biddle, an adviser to Gen. Petraeus who has cautioned that escalation is “likelier to fail than succeed,” says the Iraq debate should put aside “popular centrist options” embodied in the Iraq Study Group recommendations.
Biddle writes that the ISG’s call to “shift the mission” of U.S. troops while maintaining an occupation of Iraq would cause even greater problems. “Without a major U.S. combat effort to keep the violence down, the American training effort would face challenges even bigger than those our troops are confronting today. … It is unrealistic to expect that we can pull back to some safe yet productive mission of training but not fighting — this would be neither safe nor productive.” he writes. Biddle continues:
If the surge is unacceptable, the better option is to cut our losses and withdraw altogether. In fact, the substantive case for either extreme — surge or outright withdrawal — is stronger than for any policy between. The surge is a long-shot gamble. But middle-ground options leave us with the worst of both worlds: continuing casualties but even less chance of stability in exchange.
Moderation and centrism are normally the right instincts in American politics, and many lawmakers in both parties desperately want to find a workable middle ground on Iraq. But while the politics are right, the military logic is not.
Biddle is right — the Iraq debate must focus on what to do about the current U.S. occupation of Iraq. The question is whether to reinforce the escalation or begin the full redeployment out of Iraq. “Centrist” options do not provide a solution, but rather political cover to maintain the status quo.
UPDATE: John Podesta, Lawrence Korb, and Brian Katulis write in a Center for American Progress memo that “progressives need to point out that some of the ISG’s recommendations are ambiguous and others have been overtaken by events.” They continue:
Rather, progressives should advocate a policy that allows us to strategically reset our military forces, our diplomatic personnel, and our intelligence operations by redeploying out troops in 12 months, partitioning our diplomatic effort to better deal with Iraq’s multiple conflict, rethinking our approach to Iraq’s government and its security forces, and redirecting our immense national power toward destroying those terrorists who attacked us on 9/11. The time is past for more half-way measures.