Between the surge and the deluge

In arguing for his Iraq policy, President Bush posits a false choice between his strategy and even greater catastrophe. Too often Democrats seem to accept that choice, implicitly suggesting the abyss is now unavoidable, when in fact, both parties offer strategies for dealing with the conflict.

Republicans characterize their approach as clear and hold: Use U.S. troops to root insurgents out of cities and keep them out. Democrats argue for an alternative: Reduce tensions and get help from elsewhere. While there are no certainties in life, the critical question is which strategy is more likely to work.

Nobody wants failure in Iraq, though that is clearly what Bush has wrought. Deeper instability could create new bases for state-sponsored terrorism, greater power for Iran, ongoing misery for millions of Iraqis, and even ignite regional war. Republicans are right in asserting that the consequences of failure are catastrophic.

Unfortunately though, our need to “win” does not make us more likely to be victorious. While necessity may be the mother of invention, it is hardly the guarantor of success. I may create a situation where I need to win the lottery to avoid bankruptcy. Sadly though, my need will not increase my chances of selecting the winning ticket.

Moreover, the need to succeed does not argue for the president’s plan as the most likely road to triumph. Bush’s surge is less likely to achieve its goals than the Democrats’ phased withdrawal.

Republicans believe American military involvement has a salutary impact. Iraqis disagree. Iraqis believe the American military presence is causing violence, not quelling it. Three quarters say our military involvement “is provoking more conflict than it is preventing.” If the U.S. were to withdraw, 58 percent expect ethnic conflict to decline, while 61 percent predict day-to-day security for ordinary Iraqis will improve.

This is not an indictment of our troops, who do their best to do good in a situation built to create tension with the local population. Policing a civil war requires tactics — breaking down doors, pointing weapons at cowering families, shooting in civilian neighborhoods, enforcing curfews — that cannot help but alienate Iraqis.

As a result, 61 percent of Iraqis actually approve of attacks on U.S. military forces. This does not represent a general propensity to violence as just 4 percent approve attacks against Iraqi security forces and none support violence against civilians. Only in the case of American troops do Iraqis justify killings. However, most of those who approve of attacks against Americans say they would be less supportive were the U.S. to announce a timeline for departure.

Iraqis reject the equation between withdrawal and chaos, arguing that our military presence increases disorder, while our departure would reduce the level of violence.  If they are correct, the Democrats’ plan may well calm tensions, creating more space for internal political dialogue and reconciliation.

Of course, the Iraqi people could be wrong. American withdrawal could increase violence and foment instability, but it is worth considering the possibility that the Iraqi people have a clearer understanding of their society than, say, George Bush does.

Perhaps if our departure were imminent, other countries would assist with reconstruction. We can be certain that the bulk of the international community will not lift a finger as long as the Bush plan is operative.

While Congress continues to debate, Iraqis have made up their minds — they want us gone. Seventy-one percent of Iraqis want all U.S. forces out within a year. They understand our presence as an incitement to civil war, not a bulwark against chaos. The democratic values we profess to defend in Iraq dictate we pay at least some heed to the views of the Iraqi people.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.