As the debate on Iraq rages on, we hear more and more voices that call for throwing in the towel and leaving the mess to Iraqis to sort out. A new and unexpected proponent of this argument is Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, who said in a recent column that it's time for "Plan B." Only a few months before, he was arguing that it would be time for the United States to pack up and go only "when we don't see Iraqis taking the risk to build a progressive Iraq." Now, under the weight of bad news from Baghdad, he seems ready to abandon those very same brave men and women fighting valiantly to establish peace and justice in Iraq. I am an admirer of Friedman, who is generally thoughtful, well informed and supportive, but in this case he and many like him have gone dangerously off-track.
We are where we are
The controversy over the decision by the United States to remove the Saddam Hussein regime should not prevent an honest assessment of the situation of Iraq today. That the post-Saddam Hussein period was not well managed is now widely acknowledged. But we are where we are, and there is a future for all our children to secure. Plan B, advocated by Friedman and others, is to abandon the region to religious fanatics and Baathist terrorists. It is nothing but a declaration of defeat dressed up to look like a vision for the future.
Our enemies' strategy has never changed: creating mayhem and making Iraq ungovernable, thereby driving the Americans and their allies out, and installing a Saddam Hussein look-alike to "make peace." In pursuing this strategy, they have forged many alliances and changed course and tactics many times.
Just as they kept to their strategy and adapted, we should do the same. In this context, "staying the course" should mean being ready to adapt and learn while also standing firm for democracy and for a new vision for the country and the region. If we abandon our effort, our enemies win by default.
Those in the new government and leaders of civil society in Iraq are putting their lives on the line every day to advance a democratic society. And it is this that our enemies are most afraid of - not U.S. forces but a real democracy in the Middle East that would showcase human rights, women in politics and the rule of law. And they fear that this "worst-case scenario" could prove to be contagious.
What has made the past three years hugely more difficult and complicated is the fact that we all underestimated the determination of our opponents and some of our neighbors to undermine this new project. In the context of a global confrontation, this has pitched our fledgling democracy onto the front line of a monumental struggle. It is these outside forces, allied with Saddamists, other terrorists and regular criminals, that threaten to overwhelm us.
To argue that American withdrawal from Iraq would create a "huge problem for Iran" is disingenuous. Iran is fairly secure within its borders. Any problems in Iraq will be for Iraqis to suffer. If there is a collapse and a civil war in Iraq, it is Iran's proxies who will do the fighting, and when the dust settles these proxies will most likely end up with the oil-rich southern region of Iraq - a significant strategic gain for Iran.
There would also be the psychological impact of the perceived defeat for America. That would encourage all the enemies of the United States - and they are many - to be bolder and readier to challenge its interests everywhere. A new super-radical, geographically contiguous bloc would be born: Iran, Syria and a radicalized, totalitarian, fragmented Iraq.
U.S. departure is wrong tactic
As for the argument that the very presence of the foreign forces is a source of tension and that their departure would remove a prime source of violence: It may appear plausible at first glance, but it is in fact without merit. We need to understand precisely who is ready to fight to drive foreign forces out; it is only the Saddamists and the religious extremists (al-Qaida and the like). If U.S. forces are in fact withdrawn, these people will consider it a victory and go on fighting even harder to achieve control over the country.
Other Iraqis range from those who, while irritated by the foreign forces, would not go so far as to actually fight them to those people who know that there would be big problems for them and the country if those forces were withdrawn prematurely. This majority includes Sunnis as well as Shiites and Kurds.
Policy for success
The question that must be addressed here is what to do now in the face of the combined onslaught of insurgents, terrorists, criminal gangs and sectarian militias. A policy for success should include:
¢ Developing, with the Iraqi government, workable measures for reforming the security forces, and making available the necessary resources to implement them.
¢ Supporting the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in its efforts to disarm the militias. What is needed is a detailed multifaceted approach that encompasses political, economic and public information considerations as well as coercive measures.
¢ Applying maximum pressure on regional powers to refrain from undermining security in Iraq and to help stabilize it.
¢ Mobilizing the people to oppose the extremists in their midst. Those who say that Iraqis are at each other's throats and should be left to fight it out are wrong. A minority of sectarian extremists and Saddamists is causing and promoting sectarian violence. These resisters have been successful in intimidating the rest of the population, which abhors them. When they are challenged, as they should be, the great majority of Iraqi men and women will be very supportive.
¢ Taking the initiative from our enemies by acting boldly and aggressively. Our posture should not be defensive. That is a recipe for defeat.
¢ Back here in the United States, where Iraq has become a divisive issue, working out a bipartisan understanding aimed at success; an attitude to win this war for America, Iraq and democracy. This item is for American leaders to achieve; the others are collaborative U.S.-Iraqi endeavors.
Iraqis thirsty for freedom
Is all this achievable? We know it is. Iraqis are resilient. They thirst for normality and a chance to build a future in freedom and dignity. They are fighting and dying for it every day - witness the numbers enlisting in the security forces despite horrific losses. Witness the support Iraqi women are providing for the political process, and the potential of their emancipation.
The United States cannot escape responsibility for the current situation in Iraq. Not only would abandoning Iraq to its fate now be irresponsible, it would almost certainly lead to disintegration and dictatorship, with a high risk of a wide regional conflict. It would be catastrophic not just for Iraq but also for the United States and for world peace and stability for decades to come. On the other hand, winning this war would be one of the best gifts the United States could make to the world and to its own people.