Stay What Course?

After 2,000 deaths, muddling through is no longer an option


At the start of the Iraq War two and a half years ago, President Bush declared that American troops would stay in Iraq "as long as necessary, and not a day more." How long that would be wasn't clear then, and it isn't any clearer today. During recent congressional testimony, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was asked, "Do you think five years from now some American forces will have come out?" She replied, "I don't want to speculate." Then a softer version of the same question: "What about 10 years from now?" After some brief wrangling, Rice replied, "I don't know how to speculate about what will happen 10 years from now."

That's not good enough. The president and other proponents of the current "stay the course" strategy have noted that withdrawal from Iraq could bring with it serious costs in terms of American credibility and Iraqi lives. They're right. But they've been silent on what price America should be willing to pay to avoid those costs. Any serious conversation about what to do in Iraq cannot focus simply on the costs of exit; it must consider the costs of staying. How long will it take? How many soldiers is the mission worth sacrificing? And can the mission be accomplished?

On October 2, Gen. John Abizaid, CENTCOM commander, noted that the insurgency is "certainly alive and well." And what little hard data is available paints a bleak picture: From May until August, the number of daily attacks by insurgents hovered near the all-time high, then skyrocketed to a new high in September. Even so, President Bush warns that "we can expect there to be increasing violence" over the coming months.

Gen. Richard Myers, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said insurgencies like the one we face in Iraq generally require 7 to 12 years of fighting. The Defense Science Board, the Pentagon's research agency, is even more pessimistic: Remaking "disordered societies, with ambitious goals involving lasting cultural change, may require 20 troops per 1,000 indigenous people" for five to eight years. Twenty troops per 1,000 people in Iraq comes out to around half a million U.S. troops—about 350,000 more than we have available. Even staying the current course at current troop levels, according to the Congressional Research Service, could cost $570 billion by 2010.

More important by far are the human costs of a protracted occupation. Thus far 2,000 American soldiers have been killed and many more grievously wounded. At current casualty rates, even five more years in Iraq translates to nearly 4,000 more dead Americans. Is that a price we're willing to pay to "stay the course"?

Understandably, the current situation has placed great strains on recruitment. In the fiscal year that just ended in September, the Army National Guard and Army Reserve fell short by more than 17,000 recruits combined. The active duty Army experienced its worst recruiting shortfall since 1979. It responded by doubling the number of recruits it accepts who scored extremely poorly on mental aptitude tests. In congressional testimony earlier this year, assistant secretary of the army Richard A. Cody said "what keeps me awake at night is what will this all-volunteer force look like in 2007?" This summer, retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey predicted a "meltdown of the Army National Guard and Army Reserve in the coming 36 months." Is that a price we're willing to pay to "stay the course"?

Opponents of leaving Iraq point out that we have a moral obligation to Iraq: We broke it, and now we've bought it. This point is compelling, and difficult to face. It is indeed awful that so many Iraqis are suffering as a result of the war, and might suffer more if we left. But is there a ceiling on the costs we should be willing to pay to fulfill that obligation?

More importantly, can we fulfill it? Muddling through is simply not a policy-especially when it brings with it serious risks that five or ten years from now, we'll be in the same position we're in now, with several thousand more Americans dead. Attempting to press the fractious groups in Iraq toward enduring national reconciliation has yielded few dividends thus far, and American servicemen should not be asked to take fire indefinitely while waiting for that reconciliation to happen. Our troops are volunteers, yes, but that does not excuse their bearing the brunt of ill-defined goals and failed political leadership. It does a grave disservice to our men and women in uniform to command them to risk their lives, day in and day out, in service of a plan that amounts to "keep hope alive."

If the administration has a strategy for going forward, it needs to convey to the American people—with numbers and measurable goals—how to define victory, and what we intend to change to help us get there. It needs to show that there is a plan, and that we are not simply engaged in a slow bleed, with little hope of success.

Based on the administration's public statements, they have no realistic plan for victory in Iraq. And without a victory strategy, there is only one alternative: an exit strategy. It is past time we develop one.

Gene Healy is senior editor and Justin Logan a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute.