TCS Daily

Table the Timetable

By Melana Zyla Vickers - February 7, 2005 12:00 AM

As if to mark Iraq's elections, Democrats on Capitol Hill have begun clamoring for a fixed date of departure for U.S. soldiers. "At least 12,000 American troops, probably more, should leave at once," Sen. Edward Kennedy has said. Withdraw 120,000 of the 150,000 troops within the next 11 months, Rep. Martin Meehan (D-Mass) has said. And other House Democrats have introduced a resolution on withdrawal.

In the coming weeks, their cries are sure to get louder, still.

But loudness won't make them correct. While the Bush administration should indeed be working on its strategy for getting out of Iraq, the focus should be on how to do it, not by when to do it. That's not least because arbitrary, calendar-driven military withdrawals are a sure recipe for military failure. They imply that those who set them expect failure, and thus they embolden the adversary.

Consider the contemporary history of fixed withdrawal timetables:

Vietnam: In the classic case of arbitrary withdrawal both signaling and precipitating failure, President Richard Nixon's policy of Vietnamization -- passing the military burden from U.S. forces over to the South Vietnamese -- was dealt a fatal blow in Dec. 1970 when Congress forbade U.S. ground support for the South Vietnamese from outside Vietnam. The SVN were left vulnerable to North Vietnamese offensives. When Congress restricted support for the South Vietnamese government in 1973, then prohibited it in 1975, it was game over.

Lebanon: In 1983, after the Hezbollah bombed the U.S. embassy and then Marine barracks, killing 241 Marines, President Ronald Reagan pulled U.S. forces out of the country. Years later, Osama bin Laden would cite exactly this case, and the Somalia case in 1993, as evidence of the weak American will he hoped to exploit with his terrorist attacks.

Somalia: The U.S. military presence there began as an operation to support U.N. humanitarian missions. But after the Oct. 3-4, 1993 battle between Somali clansmen and U.S. troops left 18 U.S. dead and scores wounded, President Bill Clinton reversed course, announcing a U.S. troop withdrawal by March 31, 1994. Clan leader General Muhammed Farah Aideed read this as the U.S. turning tail and abandoning the effort to stabilize Somalia and bring in humanitarian assistance. After the U.N. as a whole left by 1995, the country descended into further clan warfare and chaos, and to this day Somalia has no central government to speak of.

Clearly, history teaches that these arbitrary deadlines help the adversary and rather fundamentally reverse any gains made by the U.S. military. Instead of committing to such a deadline, the Bush administration should instead plan out two tasks, which together form a kind of 'internal withdrawal' within Iraq. Accomplishing them will serve as the principal mileposts indicating the U.S. is getting closer to the rational moment for a pullout of troops. The tasks are:

        1) Shifting American soldiers' role from one of fighting insurgents to training, 
            equipping and advising the Iraqis on fighting insurgents.

        2) Stepping up the effort to transfer security and military operations 
            to Iraqi forces.

Democrats can take a page from George W. Bush's handbook, here. After the war in Kosovo, President Clinton was pressured in 2000 to fix a date for withdrawal of U.S. troops -- just as he'd twice fixed, and blown, deadlines for troop withdrawals in Bosnia. Clinton, chastened by his Bosnia experience, rebuffed the pressure. And candidate Bush, then on the campaign trail, supported him over some of his fellow Republicans, calling their pressure from Capitol Hill "legislative overreach on the powers of the presidency."

Calls for a pullout are similarly counterproductive now. Handing security and defense over to the Iraqis is the principal work that needs to get done in Iraq. Any distraction from it -- whether through arbitrary deadlines or other signs of ambivalence -- will serve only to prolong the insurgency and doom nascent, democratic Iraq to violence and failure.


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