Mr. President, Finish the Job in Iraq

Political operatives make their living mischaracterizing the other side. It is Washington’s greatest industry. So goes the debate over Iraq.

One side, we’re told, wants to “cut and run;” the other intends to simply plod along and “stay the course.”

Hogwash. Neither bumper sticker truly represents what either side thinks ought to be done. And neither option offers a credible U.S. policy.

Cut and Run: Few on either side of the political aisle are really arguing to abandon Iraq overnight. Well, almost no one. George McGovern has co-authored a new book, Out of Iraq. That is exactly the argument he makes: Pull the troops out in six months regardless of the conditions on the ground. It’s a plan that would virtually guarantee a civil war and an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, putting millions of lives at risk.

Many elements of McGovern’s plan, excerpted in the latest Harper’s magazine, are so wildly impractical that they verge on the ridiculous. Take his call for replacing 150,000 U.S. troops with 15,000 international peacekeepers. What this minuscule force (in a country of 25 million and the size of California) would accomplish, other that being a handy target for terrorists, is far from clear.

Equally puzzling is a suggestion that the United States apologize to the people of Iraq.

For what? For deposing a dictator who slaughtered more than a million of his own people? For battling terrorists who have killed tens of thousands of innocents whose only crime was a desire to live under a freely elected government and go to the marketplace and buy bread? Perhaps the United States should apologize for spending in excess of $200 billion to rebuild the country.

Oh, and McGovern wants to dump boatloads of additional U.S. tax dollars into the Iraqi economy -- pretty much ignoring that the enormous sums the United States has already pumped into the economy, an investment overshadowed by unremitting violence.

In the end, "Out of the Iraq" makes the opposite case that it intends. If staying in Iraq won’t guarantee success, cutting and running, even when the proposal is sweetened with a laundry list of superficial and impractical suggestions, will virtually ensure failure.

Stay the Course: On the other hand, the core premise of McGovern’s book is spot on. The long-term occupation of Iraq will undermine the readiness of the American military. Hosting permanent bases and maintaining the largest U.S. embassy in the world in Baghdad are bad ideas as well. And the longer U.S. troops are there, the more they serve as the poster child for al Qaeda recruiting and an excuse for Iran to flame Shia-Sunni conflict in the country.

Finally, the longer we are there, the more dependent the Iraqis become and the more they avoid addressing the tough security and political issues that must be resolved.

But labeling the administration’s plan for Iraq as “stay the course” -- implying that our troops will be there indefinitely -- is inaccurate as well. The president has long maintained that U.S. forces will stand down as the Iraqi government and its security forces stand up. It will be up to the Iraqis to secure the future of their country.

Where the administration has faltered in recent months is in not continuing to move forward on that plan. Transitioning responsibility to the government and preparing the security forces has taken a back seat to tamping down the violence that has everyone’s attention. That’s bad. It allows the enemy to set the pace. When they ratchet up the violence, progress stops -- and lack of progress is an excuse for more violence.

The administration needs to shift its rhetoric from “staying the course” to “finishing the job.” Both sides of the debate agree we are going to leave Iraq. But how we leave is what matters.

The Iraqis need to start retaking control of their provinces. There are probably six that could be turned completely over to the Iraqis in the next six months. U.S. troops must dedicate the bulk of their resources to finishing the training and equipping of the Iraqi military. The police have to be reformed. The Iraqi government should demonstrate that it can take charge, get people back to work, deal with the militias and address the hot-button political issues that divide the country.

Meanwhile, the U.S. needs to figure out how to continue to provide support to the Iraqi government and the military after most of our troops are gone.

These are practical steps that will give Iraq a fighting chance for a future. They can and should be done sooner rather than later. It’s the president’s job to finish the job.

James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation and author of the new book “GI Ingenuity.”

James Jay Carafano is vice president of foreign and defense policy studies  The Heritage Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @JJCarafano.