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Iraq - Three Options, Three Problems

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As the war in Iraq drags on, American opinion becomes increasingly polarized. The April 18 Gallup Poll notes that only 32 percent of Americans approve of the President's handling of Iraq, and they're mostly Republicans. Whether one is sanguine about Iraq depends upon whether or not you trust George Bush. However, personalizing America's dilemma in Iraq bypasses the reality that we actually only have three options. And, each of these has problems.

Option 1: Invest More Resources in Counterinsurgency. Several recent articles argued that where the United States actually engages in counterinsurgency within Iraq, it is successful. (The operating definition of counterinsurgency warfare is "20 percent military, and 80 percent political.") While effective, it's not a widespread U.S. initiative. Indeed, the articles suggested that where counterinsurgency occurred, it was done "despite an absence of guidance" from the Bush Administration, which disapproves of the word "insurgency" and, therefore, doesn't formally support counterinsurgency.

While counterinsurgency seems to be the only good news coming out of Iraq, there are problems with this approach: fully embracing counterinsurgency means the U.S. would have to send more troops to Iraq, rather than withdraw them. It also means spending more money on repair of the Iraqi infrastructure, rather than rapidly reducing our expenditures. And, it suggests changing the role of the military from conducting combat missions to conflict resolution, directing the pacification of large sections of Iraq.

In their characteristically half-ass way, the Bush Administration has been trying to get other nations to invest in counterinsurgency. This hasn't been successful, because those nations don't like us very much; they take the position that since we broke Iraq, we should fix it. This leaves the Bush Administration with a basic dilemma: they want to hand off Iraq to someone""our "allies" or a "stable Iraqi government"""but there is no such entity.

Option 2: Admit Iraq is Broken and Divide it into Three States. Over the past couple of years, many experts observed that Iraq is an artificial state, cobbled together by the Brits. They argued that rather than try to make Iraq work as one nation-state with three feuding elements, it makes more sense to treat it as three different entities: a Kurdish state in the north, a Shiite state in the south, and in between, a Sunni state in what is now called "the Sunni triangle." Under this arrangement Iraq would become a loose federation. The US would partition the country and then begin withdrawal.

Unfortunately, there are problems with this option. Critics say endorsing the three-state solution invites ethnic cleansing. That It would inevitably require a massive relocation of ethnic minorities; for example, the substantial number of Shiites that current live in Baghdad would have to relocate to the Shiite state. And, there is another problem with this option: How would Iraq's oil revenues be divided? Oil resources are not distributed equally among the three ethnic states.

The Bush Administration doesn't like to talk about the three-state solution, because it suggests that their design for a "democratic" Iraq won't work and that the US should fund population relocation. They ignore the reality that ethnic cleansing has already begun. Throughout Iraq, minorities are being threatened and killed. As a result they moving out of the country or to an area controlled by their ethnic group.

Option 3: Admit Iraq is a Quagmire and Withdraw Troops. The third option is to leave Iraq. While more and more Democrats have taken the position that the US should withdraw troops within the next twelve months, their proposals differ in significant details. Most call for a draw down in Iraq and repositioning troops nearby, in Kuwait or Dubai, so that if Iraq imploded we could respond. There's disagreement about what happens to the "enduring bases" we've built.

Interestingly, while President Bush has resisted a timetable for withdrawal, the net effect of recent Pentagon policies has created something comparable. Since January, American troops have been withdrawn from most Iraqi hot spots and relocated into the highly fortified enduring bases. In many cities, security is now the responsibility of Iraqi forces advised by a few American military personnel. Meanwhile, Iraq has lapsed into civil war.

What will happen? Many families have endured the spoiled child syndrome, where a favored child acts out again and again, without being punished, and eventually gets into serious trouble. Then, the legal system gets involved and expects the child to abruptly learn to observe limits. This causes new problems, because his upbringing has taught him that there are none.

At the heart of the Iraq dilemma is our own version of this syndrome: President Bush was a chronically spoiled child, who acted out, but was never taught limits. Not surprisingly, he won't take responsibility for the mess he's made of Iraq.

As a result, there is no optimal solution in Iraq. If the Democrats regain control of the House or Senate, they can force a withdrawal of troops. While problematic, this is the most satisfactory of the three possible options.
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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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