quicksand I agree with Kevin Drum, who calls on “proponents of withdrawal to be honest about the likely aftermath of pulling out: an intensified civil war that will take the lives of tens of thousands and end in the installation, at least in the short-term, of an Iran-friendly theocracy.” It might not happen, but I think the risks are fairly high. I also think he may be right in saying that predictions of total catastophe by the “Chaos Hawks” are likely overblown, though I’m not as comfortable with the historical analogies.

Against the risks of these likely — but still uncertain — outcomes, Drum very succinctly and persuasively summarizes the risks of keeping substantial levels of US forces occupying Iraq with many of them engaged in combat operations:

The alternative is to babysit the civil war with American troops, spilling blood and treasure along the way, without truly affecting the course of events in any substantial measure.
[snip]
This means that it’s time for more sensible regional professionals to screw up their courage and tell the truth: pulling out won’t be pretty, but if it’s done prudently [emphasis mine] neither will it be Armageddon. The sooner we figure this out, the sooner we can leave Iraq.

Until then, though, our foreign policy will continue to be held hostage to a senseless war that does us no good. Al-Qaeda will continue to recruit and grow, Afghanistan will slowly slip away, a shooting war with Iran will become more likely, our military will continue being stretched and drained, and our country will become less and less safe. And all for nothing.

Because I think the risks in that last paragraph are extremely high, and worse than the alternatives, I agree with a policy of planning a withdrawal. But what does it mean to say, “if it’s done prudently . . . “? And who would we trust to do the planning?

The last thing I would ever do is trust the Bush/Cheney regime to plan and manage this (or anything else having to do with America’s national security) and the American people seem to agree. So we’re talking about a planning process that, even if it began tomorrow, could be “imprudent” and reckless under the current regime; we really need to have trustworthy grownups in charge of this, and that means waiting until the current regime is gone and hoping the next national security team is substantially more responsible and less belligerent and reckless than the folks we have today.

The Democrats’ leading Presidential contenders have also been using terms like “prudent” when they describe their “withdrawal” plans. That’s not a problem in itself, but what if they interpreted withdrawing “prudently” to mean something like the proposals of the remaining experts from the Iraq Study Group:

In a report to be released today, a panel of experts assembled by the U.S. Institute of Peace calls for a 50 percent reduction in U.S. forces in Iraq within three years and a total withdrawal and handover of security to the Iraqi military in five years.

“The United States faces too many challenges around the world to continue its current level of effort in Iraq, or even the deployment that was in place before the surge,” the report says. “It is time to chart a clearer path forward.”

The panel includes many of the experts who advised the original Iraq Study Group, which issued its report last December. . . .

If this is how our current crop of foreign policy experts define what a “prudent” withdrawal looks like, then I don’t see any reason to expect the outcome for the next 3-5 years of “prudently withdrawing” to be much different from what Kevin Drum describes as the outcome of a policy of staying:

Until then, though, our foreign policy will continue to be held hostage to a senseless war that does us no good. Al-Qaeda will continue to recruit and grow, Afghanistan will slowly slip away, a shooting war with Iran will become more likely, our military will continue being stretched and drained, and our country will become less and less safe. And all for nothing.

Perhaps this is why George Packer, to whom The New Yorker gave the unenviable assignment of answering the question “How should we withdraw from Iraq” (Planning for Defeat, September 2007) systematically goes through all of the think tank withdrawal plans and finds all of them wanting for one reason or another. Packer winds up with a strategy that is barely distinguishable from staying for a few years or so, and even then assigns it no more than a small chance of success. This is how Packer ends:

. . . the “Sunni awakening” of tribes in western Iraq and the American decision to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, a Sunni country, have nudged the U.S. closer to the Sunni side. It may very well become American policy to keep Iraq’s Sunni Arabs strong enough to create a stalemate in the civil war and contain Iranian influence in the region. But, given that the war began in 2003 with the goal of bringing Iraq’s Shiite majority to power as the leading edge of a democratic transformation in the Middle East, this return to balance-of-power Realpolitik, with the Saudis as America’s most important allies, would represent the ultimate failure of the President’s project.

The war was born in the original sins of deceptive salesmanship, divisive politics, and wishful thinking about the aftermath. The bitterness of that history continues to undermine American interests in Iraq and the Middle East today. President Bush will have his victory at any cost, with one eye on his next Churchillian speech and the other on his place in history, leaving the implementation of his war policy to an Administration that works at cross purposes with itself, promising freedom and delivering rubble. The opposition is plainly eager to hang a defeat around his neck and move on from what it always regarded as Bush’s war. Before the U.S. can persuade the world to unite around a shared responsibility for Iraq, Americans will have to do it first. The problems created by the war will require solutions that don’t belong to a single political party or President: the rise of Iranian power, the emergence of Al Qaeda in Iraq, the radicalization of populations, the huge refugee crisis, the damage to a new generation of Iraqis who are growing up amid the unimaginable. Whenever this country decides that the bloody experience in Iraq requires the departure of American troops, complete disengagement will be neither desirable nor possible. We might want to be rid of Iraq, but Iraq won’t let it happen.

The Petreaus hearing should be starting early this afternoon, eastern time, and I’m wondering if these considerations will come up.