One Exit Strategy: Just Leave

Walter Russell Mead, a contributing editor to Opinion, is senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of "Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World."

With U.S. forces continuing to take casualties eight weeks after the fall of Baghdad, the security situation is deteriorating, and progress toward a stable and democratic Iraq looks troubled and slow. Around the world, critics of the U.S.-led invasion, and of the assertive unilateralism of the Bush administration, are licking their chops. The chorus is starting to rise: “I told you so.”

Now, say the critics, the administration will begin to learn some facts of life. Now it will realize that Old Europe knows a thing or two about the Middle East. Washington is learning the hard way what France learned when it failed to suppress the rebellion in Algeria and what Britain learned during its first, failed occupation of Iraq. Caught between its high-profile public commitment to build democracy first in Iraq and then throughout the Middle East and the sputtering resistance and failure on the ground, the U.S. is going to lose the peace, the critics predict.

The critics have a point. Several, in fact.

Clearly, the Bush people’s postwar planning was neither as thorough nor as brilliant as the military work that went into the invasion. But barring what remains an almost inconceivable worst-case scenario -- terrorism combining with a popular uprising to drive the U.S. out of Iraq and leave a hostile regime in power -- the administration will be able to manage most of the consequences of a troubled reconstruction.


Part of the reason is context. So far, from the administration’s standpoint, even counting the postwar chaos -- and the failure to find obvious weapons of mass destruction -- the war worked. The successful military operation, confounding domestic critics who had warned of Mogadishu-like street fighting in Baghdad, strengthened the administration’s hold on the public trust. In wartime, most Americans instinctively trust their president unless they get good reasons not to. At this point, it would take a lot to reverse public support for Bush, who is seen as decisive and determined.

The war also worked overseas. Bush isn’t trying to rebuild his links to foreign leaders; they are trying to rebuild their ties to him. French President Jacques Chirac is frantically calling the White House, not the other way around.

Globally, there is a sometimes grudging acceptance of the Iraqi fait accompli. France, though still bitter and still seeking to contain U.S. power, recognizes the need for “pragmatic” approaches after the war. Germany and Russia joined France in backing the U.S.-sponsored resolution at the U.N. Security Council that lifted sanctions against Iraq and provided for the appointment of a special U.N. representative to work with occupation authorities. Despite the obligatory posturing and ritual calls for a “multipolar world,” Russia seems to be quietly inching toward the U.S. position of concern about Iran’s nuclear program. China, partly preoccupied by the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, is relatively quiet.

The administration has thus played its cards well in the postwar diplomacy, combining threats against potential opponents like Syria and Iran with strokes for traditional allies in Europe and the Arab world. After the iron fist, the velvet glove. The decision to remove American forces from Saudi Arabia, along with the Al Qaeda attacks on civilian targets, has brought the Saudi and U.S. governments closer. Bush’s attempt to restart a dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians has made life easier for moderate Arab regimes and narrowed the gap between the U.S. and its European allies on Middle East issues. The president’s forthcoming trip to the Middle East and the degree to which he is putting his personal prestige behind the peace process also help. Any progress toward a Palestinian state or significant easing of the Israeli occupation will further improve U.S. standing.


All very true, critics say. But what if things come unglued in Iraq? What if law and order don’t return, and the present low level of violence starts to rise and become better organized? What if the body count among U.S. forces continues to increase? Won’t American public opinion demand a speedy retreat? And wouldn’t a retreat that left Iraq still undemocratic undercut the U.S. further?

The short answer is that if Iraqi violence continues to rise, at some point the administration would go to Plan B: Find a general, turn the place over to him and go home.

If this happens, it would be a tragedy not only for Iraqis but for the democratic aspirations of the whole Middle East. For Bush, it might not be so bad.

True, strident voices from both the left and right would condemn the administration for betraying democracy. The Nation and the Weekly Standard would have their say; words like “hypocrisy” and “irresponsibility” would buzz on the talk shows. The great and the good would be saddened and shocked; the editorial and opinion pages would hum with tsk-tsks.


Elites would wring their hands, but voters would just shrug their shoulders. Poll after poll shows that Americans want democracy and human rights to spread around the world -- but that they don’t want American combat troops to be caught in the crossfire. If Iraqis reject U.S. help to build a democracy, and Bush decides to bring the troops home, most voters will agree with his decision. They were willing to give this democracy-in-the-Middle-East idea a try -- and they genuinely do hope it will work -- but at the end of the day, they don’t want a war over it.

Especially not an ugly guerrilla war that kills lots of U.S. troops.

Look at the history books. The Clinton administration intervened to establish democracy in Haiti. More than eight years later, Haiti is at least as messy as Iraq, but nobody wants U.S. troops to go back and deal with it.

Most American voters are surprisingly hard-eyed and realistic about the prospects of democracy overseas. They know that Iraq has thousands of years of nondemocratic history behind it, and they won’t blame Bush if a miracle hasn’t happened by Christmas. On the other hand, they are concerned enough about the Middle East to support U.S. engagement at whatever level the president asks.


International repercussions of a U.S. exit would also be limited. Most world governments would be more relieved than angered if America withdrew from an imperfect Iraq. U.S. success worries them more than U.S. failure; the true nightmare for our opponents begins if America gets everything it wants in Iraq.

What this all means is that the Bush administration still has a relatively free hand in Iraq. With much to gain and relatively little to lose, it can afford to think big -- while keeping one eye on the exit.