The No-Win Solution

Rajan Menon, a New America Foundation fellow, teaches international relations at Lehigh University.

George W. Bush and John F. Kerry have more in common on Iraq than is generally believed, or than either acknowledges.

Both candidates would continue the war, and they agree that withdrawing without victory is not an option. Both would increase the training of Iraqi soldiers and police so that the Iraqis themselves, ultimately, can fight their own battles. Both would draw the United Nations and other countries in, although Kerry promises to do so with more energy and credibility. Both believe an elected Iraqi government will yield a legitimate Iraqi government and enable the war to wind down.

There’s only one problem with this reasoning: It’s wrong.

No doubt an American defeat in Iraq -- defined as withdrawal stemming from failure to quell the insurgency -- would increase strife in that country and probably precipitate a civil war. But continuing the war may well produce the same result. And it would also result in still more casualties among U.S. troops, more Iraqi civilians inadvertently killed during military operations in the Sunni Triangle and in Muqtada Sadr’s Baghdad strongholds, more terrorist attacks and a continued influx of Muslim militants from beyond Iraq.


Under these conditions, the elections planned for Iraq in January will either not be held or they will go forward but lack legitimacy because voting will not be able to take place in many Sunni areas in central Iraq, where it’s just too dangerous. Either way, there will not be a government that commands sufficient loyalty from Iraqis for its leaders and troops to be accepted and the insurgents to be marginalized. And that means that the United States will continue bearing the brunt of the fighting for years.

With the insurgency on the increase and with daily life so hazardous in so much of Iraq, schemes to internationalize the war by enlisting more countries and the U.N. (like those being proposed by Kerry and Bush) are a chimera. Some states may be persuaded to write checks, but they won’t send in substantial numbers of troops.

Iraq is a quagmire; everyone knows it, and no one is crazy enough to wade into it. Even the Poles, whom President Bush has praised for their steadfastness in Iraq, have announced they will scale back their presence. Kerry hopes to gain enough partners and train enough Iraqi soldiers to start reducing the number of American troops within six months. But an American disengagement isn’t the same as a victory in any meaningful sense of the term because no one will be able to fill the military void that will be left by an American departure, or even a major American troop cutback.

There are only two reasonable choices, now that we have taken responsibility for an insurgent-infested country of 25 million people, the majority of whom have turned against the U.S. because it has brought neither peace nor economic improvements. And neither choice is a good one.

The first is to acknowledge, as Kerry has, that the invasion of Iraq was unnecessary and to withdraw regardless of whether Iraqi elections are held or a robust Iraqi military is ready. True, announcing a date of departure for our troops would boost the insurgents’ morale and could lead to a civil war culminating in Iraq’s fragmentation. But it could also force Iraqis to come up with creative, indigenous solutions. It might also pressure Arab countries, which have more to lose than the U.S. from chaos in Iraq, to do something more than watch nervously and condemn the American war. For Bush, this approach would amount to eating crow. But is that worse than endless war in Iraq?

The second choice is to continue fighting in Iraq and hope that eventually there will be enough stability to hold an election that produces an Iraqi government that enjoys legitimacy among Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and other groups. By then, there will also have to be a trained Iraqi army with enough manpower and weaponry to defeat the insurgents, who, regardless of the election’s outcome, will not lay down their arms or defuse their bombs. Unlike the first option, this one requires our staying in Iraq for more than six months, with all that that implies. But it does contain the proverbial exit strategy and it doesn’t rely on the pipe dream of international support. What’s more, a clear timeline could be stipulated.

We are in a situation where the question is not what the best choice is, but which choice is the least bad.

The risks of a U.S. departure are real: Things could get worse in Iraq. But it’s hardly clear that we are making things better by staying.

Meanwhile, we are promised an Iraq that sows democracy in the Middle East by force of example, told that a new occupant in the White House will assemble a truly international coalition that will ease our burdens, and treated to the mantra that the war must be won. This is a denial of reality.

Sooner or later, the American public will catch on. Most Iraqis already have.