By narrow margins, both the House and the Senate have voted to establish a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, a so-called “date certain.” If a compromise bill reaches the president’s desk, he will veto it, relying on the argument that letting enemy forces know when we’re leaving will encourage them and provide certain strategic advantages. Perhaps.
But assertions about the impact of a timetable for withdrawal should be considered against the backdrop of miscalculation that characterizes this war. Iraqis are fighting American troops and each other for various obscure reasons, and I suspect that the effect of an established timetable for withdrawal is, at best, unpredictable.
After all, the Iraqis, as well as the other players in the Middle East, already know that America cannot afford to stay in Iraq indefinitely, and the president has said that the U.S. commitment is not open-ended. Current troop levels are unsustainable for 10 years or five years or even three years. The armed services are overextended and the American people are unlikely to tolerate the status quo for much longer. One easily forgotten lesson from Vietnam is that there are few forces that are more patient than insurgents fighting in their own country.
So an American withdrawal is inevitable. As yet, the date is uncertain, but in patient-insurgency time, it’s not that far away.
Sometimes supporters of the war express a patronizing sympathy with the viewpoint of most Americans, who want our troops to leave Iraq as soon as possible. The supporters understand, they say, that Americans are tired of the war and frustrated. They admit to frustration, as well, but maintain that America has to be resolute. But this condescending argument pictures Americans as children who’ve become bored and frustrated with, say, putting together a difficult model airplane on a rainy day. With sufficient patience, the adults say, we can make this work.
But I don’t think Americans are frustrated and tired of the war so much as they recognize its initial pointlessness and the current futility of a situation in which the presence of American troops has become more of a problem than a solution.
What would be the impact of setting a firm withdrawal date in the near future?
First, consider the math: As of this writing, April 6, American troops have been at war in Iraq for 1,477 days. A headline on page 4A of today’s local newspaper reads, “8 U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq.” (Four British troops and 49 civilians were killed, as well.) Ignoring the numberless Iraqi civilian deaths, as well as life-changing injuries to American and coalition troops, today’s death toll brings the total for American men and women killed in Iraq to 3,266.
In other words, over the past four years 2.2 American troops have been killed every day, an average that is unlikely to decrease as long as Americans are in Iraq in force. If the United States withdraws in one year, as the Senate proposes, more than 800 additional troops will die. If we take our time with our inevitable withdrawal, in three more years the total death toll will approach 5,700 troops. The numbers are hypothetical, but the deaths will be real.
Since the administration’s estimation of the impact of an announcement of a scheduled withdrawal is largely speculation, consider a different speculation. Wars, like short stories and novels, have beginnings, middles and ends. In Iraq, we’re in the middle, with no end in sight. All of the parties with interests in Iraq, except the United States, have the resources, will and patience to continue the conflict more or less indefinitely. And as long as the conflict continues, so will the deaths.
The announcement of a scheduled American withdrawal from Iraq would be the inevitable first step toward the end of the Iraq war. In fact, its effect could be a temporary sense of relief that provides the breathing space necessary for a diplomatic settlement that involves the whole region, which everyone but administration “dead-enders” already understand is the only way out.
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.)