If Congress is to derail President Bush's wayward plan to send more U.S. troops to Iraq, it must offer more than non-binding resolutions and bluster on the Senate floor. It must come up with a responsible and compelling alternative. As Bush challenged his critics last month, "My only call to Congress is that if you've got a better way to succeed, step up and explain it. Congress can, and should, do so."
Bush is right that the United States cannot merely walk away from the war; if Iraq becomes a lost cause, the likely results include the regional spread of sectarian violence, the intervention of Iraq's neighbors, and the expansion of terrorist sanctuaries. But Bush is wrong to insist that the United States faces a stark choice between sending more U.S. troops to Iraq and giving up. By altering its war aims before it is too late, the United States still has a fighting chance of averting Iraq's collapse and the regional spread of the conflict. In contrast, dispatching another 17,500 soldiers to confront militias in Baghdad simply puts additional resources behind failed policies, risking a steady slide toward all-out civil war.
Rather than focusing on mission impossible in Baghdad, the U.S. military should shift its sights to two realistic and achievable goals: 1) containing the arena of violence to current conflict zones within Iraq; and 2) averting the spread of instability from Iraq to the broader region. The fruitless engagement of U.S. soldiers in the civil conflict should end, enabling roughly half of the U.S. contingent in Iraq to return home. Military planners should develop a strategy that focuses on containment, substantially reducing the burdens and risks facing the U.S. forces that remain in Iraq while at the same time safeguarding America's vital interest in averting a wider war.
Should the U.S. withdraw from Baghdad and other areas overcome by sectarian conflict, conditions in those areas may well get worse before they get better. But the parties to the conflict are unlikely to reach a political settlement until they first arrive at a military equilibrium. As the recent conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan have demonstrated, military contests often need to run their course before political compromises can be reached. America's growing presence in Baghdad may well be delaying, not facilitating, the endgame.
Redeployment from zones of sectarian fighting would enable the United States to reduce its footprint in Iraq, yet still retain a residual force big enough to prevent the spread of the conflict and to avert a power vacuum that could tempt Iraq's neighbors. Meanwhile, the United States would not abandon Baghdad, but instead continue to train Iraqi forces, support their efforts to pacify the city, and assist with reconstruction and humanitarian relief.
As it disengages from direct involvement in the sectarian conflict in Baghdad and other urban areas, the United States should take the following steps to contain the fighting to current zones and prevent regional spillover:
The bloodshed in Baghdad admittedly makes it difficult to look beyond the troubled capital. But America's efforts in Baghdad have not paid off, and there are no positive signs to suggest that Bush's planned surge will stem the violence or repair the gaping sectarian divide. A strategy of containment offers the best hope of focusing U.S. efforts on remaining goals that are not only vital, but also still attainable.
Charles A. Kupchan is a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Suzanne Nossel is a fellow at the Security and Peace Initiative and writes for the Democracy Arsenal weblog.
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