One more year in Iraq

Is it really worth spending $190 billion this year on the war on Iraq? The answer may well be no, but the U.S. is already so deeply committed that it should take the risk -- for one more year.

Part of the tragedy of Iraq is that all the major cards have been dealt, and it is too late to change most elements of U.S. strategy. The leaders of Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic factions are shaping events far more than the United States can. The most the U.S. can do now is to continue to pressure all sides into some form of political accommodation.

What leverage we have at this point does not lie in threatening to leave but in offering more incentives in the form of aid and long-term support. And if we can succeed in bringing the opposing sides together, it will be worth it. There is nothing pretty about what is happening: more than 2 million refugees driven from the country, according to U.N. estimates; 2 million displaced inside Iraq; 80,000 to 100,000 more driven from their homes each month; 8 million in dire poverty and perhaps 100,000 dead and many more wounded.

But any U.S. effort to try to choose a new leader or strongman for Iraq can only breed popular Iraqi anger and distrust. We can only try to bring the Iraqis together and offer them the security and economic aid necessary to make accommodation work.

The odds of success are less than even. But it’s worth a try because the stakes are immense. America’s reputation and credibility are at risk; it “broke” Iraq, put 28 million lives at risk and is morally responsible for the consequences. Global energy security -- the continued flow of the oil exports that fuel the world’s economy -- are also in play. We shouldn’t stay in a losing game indefinitely. I believe we should give ourselves until October 2008; if there’s no Iraqi political accommodation by then, we should get out.

Meanwhile, we must play out the hand we have dealt ourselves.

Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies is the author of “Iraqi Force Development: Conditions for Success, Consequences of Failure.”