Scholars Debate Wisdom of Withdrawal from Iraq

By Fred Lucas | July 7, 2008 | 8:32 PM EDT

( - Regardless of anyone's politics or view of the war in Iraq, they had better hope President Bush's troop "surge" works, a panel of foreign policy experts in Washington agreed Wednesday, although that's about all they agreed with.

"The surge is the only hope of a happy ending," said Kenneth Pollack, director of research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

"I don't know what the consequences of failure are, but they could be disastrous," he said.

On a day when the U.S. Senate voted to debate a Democratic plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq by next year, foreign policy experts at a forum sponsored by the Heritage Foundation warned of the dire outcome of doing so.

Pollack said he feared the surge would not succeed and stressed the need to commit to establish a stronger Iraqi government, because success was about more than a military victory.

Foreign policy experts at another forum, this one sponsored by the libertarian CATO Institute, argued that is it time for America to withdraw from a conflict it has been in for nearly four years.

"When you make a bad investment, you end the pain as quickly as possible, not just hope that it gets better," said Ted Carpenter, vice president of defense and foreign policy studies at CATO and author of a report entitled "Escaping the Trap."

He argues the United States is trapped in sectarian violence now. While he agrees with one point of the Bush administration - that sectarian violence could erupt into regional chaos - he said both Sunnis and Shi'ites in Iraq dislike al Qaeda.

Carpenter argued, therefore, that it was not likely Iraq would become a terror haven by virtue of the United States not being there.

"We're going to pay a price, and it's going to be unpleasant," Carpenter said. "It's a very unstable part of the world, and we are going to take a hit against our credibility, but that's compared to the cost of staying, about $100 billion per year and 900 lives per year."

The concern for Frederick Kagan, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is that the U.S. will "pull the plug" out of fatigue soon, or within a year after some significant success, but without having completed the critical mission.

While admitting his own frustration with the administration's handling of the war, Kagan said at the Heritage event there is historical precedent for the U.S. to face severe problems in war time before a final triumph.

"When the U.S. wins wars, they usually start by messing up," Kagan said, adding that such was the case before the first Gulf War in 1991.

"A parallel some might not be comfortable with is Afghanistan in the 1980s," he said. "How much of a threat was the mujahideen to the world in the 1980s? Not much. But when the Soviets withdrew, that metastasized into the terrorism we saw on Sept. 11."

There is little hope for success for the troop surge from Anthony Cordesman, author of a new Center for Strategic and International Studies study. Still, he said, America has no choice but to make a long-term commitment.

"This doesn't go away in 2007 or 2008," he said at the Heritage forum. "The price of success is 2015. We can't walk away."

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