One of the prominent arguments that President Bush has made in favor of a 21,500-troop surge in Iraq is the assertion that no one else has a better plan. Challenging skeptics, he says, “To oppose everything while proposing nothing is irresponsible.” And since you don’t have any better ideas, he says, give the surge a chance. It might work.
But this position has the defensive uncertainty of a playground taunt: “You got a better idea?” It pictures Bush’s opponents as naysayers with nothing to add to the debate. But the Bush administration has maneuvered the country into a complicated and dangerous dilemma, and the absence of other ready solutions is in itself no justification for raising the stakes by 21,500 men and women in pursuit of a policy that has failed.
Besides, the idea that a surge of troops is the only alternative is mistaken; other options already have been offered and some of them have as much feasibility as the one the administration seems determined to pursue.
Last fall former Democratic Sen. George McGovern and Middle East scholar William Polk published a book entitled “Out of Iraq,” a plan to withdraw U.S. troops between December 31, 2006, and June 30, 2007. A short version of this plan was published in Harper’s Magazine in October 2006.
McGovern and Polk begin with the premise that withdrawal is necessary because continued U.S. presence provokes further violence and unrest in Iraq and feeds international terrorism. They note that just about everyone wants us out of Iraq, including most Iraqis and most Americans, as indicated by our elections in November.
Getting out of Iraq won’t be easy, but McGovern and Polk develop a credible plan for creatively redirecting our daily expenditure of around $250 million per day toward better security and the restoration of Iraqi infrastructure. They propose, for example, the development of a temporary international stabilization force hired by the Iraqi government from Arab and Muslim countries, arguing that such a force would undermine public support for the insurgency. The $5.5 billion that the force would cost us for two years represents only about 3 percent of the cost of maintaining our own army in Iraq for the same period of time.
McGovern and Polk also offer a thoughtful, comprehensive plan for a measured withdrawal from Iraq that doesn’t leave chaos behind — and that isn’t “cutting and running.” I’m not enough of an expert on Iraq or international politics or Islam to assert that everything they suggest would work. But their plan certainly neutralizes the White House argument that critics of the surge have no alternatives to offer. At the least, the McGovern and Polk plan has in its favor an argument identical to the one that supports the surge: It might work.
And McGovern and Polk aren’t the only ones with other ideas. A number of experts, but most prominently the Iraq Study Group, have argued that area powers, particularly Iran, must be drawn into the resolution of Iraq. Not only is this advice being ignored, the White House is taking steps that can easily be seen as belligerent and which make diplomacy increasingly difficult.
In fact, it’s not hard to imagine how things look from Iran’s perspective: The world’s only superpower has publicly advocated regime change in Iran and already has troops in two bordering countries. To the west a troop buildup is underway. To the east more troops are proposed. A second carrier group is moving into the Persian Gulf. The superpower covets Iranian oil. And it’s the only country in history to actually use nuclear weapons in war. Wouldn’t you want nuclear weapons, too?
Nevertheless, since no solution in Iraq is likely without Iran, engagement is essential. Iranians may not think exactly like we do, but they’re not from another planet.
So a surge in Iraq isn’t the only option. In fact, here is one other alternative: Let’s admit we made a mistake in Iraq, even though doing so will cost George Bush dearly. And then let’s commit to resolving Iraq with diplomacy, while we still have the luxury of negotiating from a position of power. Real statesmanship could save many lives. It might work.
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.)