WASHINGTON—Now that moderate Republicans have told President Bush that time is running out on his Iraq policy, he'll have to demonstrate real progress in a matter of months or face choices that range from the highly unpleasant to the nearly unthinkable.
September, only four months away, is increasingly looking like a deadline. By then, it should be known whether Bush's "surge" strategy of increased U.S. troops in Iraq is having an impact and whether Iraqis have undertaken long-promised changes to ease sectarian warfare. The 2008 U.S. presidential election will be in full cry.
After more than four years of conflict in Iraq, analysts say, there aren't many options left.
As former U.S. officials Carlos Pascual and Kenneth Pollack, now scholars at the Brookings Institution, wrote recently:
"The four basic options facing this—and the next—administration are victory, stability, withdrawal and containment. Victory, as defined by President Bush, is not currently attainable."
Here is a look at some of the American options:
STAYING THE COURSE
The president has never wavered from his belief that "failure is not an option" in Iraq, and he may well try to stick to that strategy for the rest of his tenure.
"I don't think that Bush has any interest in giving up on Iraq," Pollack, a former CIA analyst and White House policymaker, said in an interview. "I think he's going to ride the surge until he's out of office."
Pollack and some other analysts, including Frederick Kagan of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, who was an architect of the "surge" policy, say it's much too early to declare failure. Two of the five brigades of additional U.S. troops, each comprising about 3,500 soldiers, have yet to begin operations in Iraq, they note.
Yet by most accounts, the best that Bush can hope for now is a slow crawl toward stability. That would mean a reduction in—but not an end to—violence and moves toward national reconciliation on key issues, such as distributing oil revenues.
Key to calming tensions are Iraq's neighbors, including Iran and Syria, whom the Bush administration has only now begun lobbying.
Bush might find some public support for hanging tough, or at least avoiding a precipitous withdrawal. Public opinion polls show that a majority of Americans want to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, but few favor doing it immediately.
Yet the warning to Bush from 11 House Republicans on Tuesday underlines how the political ground will slip from under him if there's no progress and he rebuffs calls for change.
WITHDRAWING THE TROOPS
Even if a U.S. troop withdrawal began today, it would take at least eight to 10 months to get American soldiers, their equipment and the infrastructure they brought with them out of Iraq. Depending on the scenario, some U.S. troops would redeploy to other bases in and around the Middle East; many would return home.
Since taking control of Congress in January, Democrats have pushed for a withdrawal timetable.
Bush warns that leaving Iraq now would create a haven for Islamic terrorists, who could destabilize the Arab world and seek to attack the United States. (Al-Qaida had no presence in Iraq under the late President Saddam Hussein before the March 2003 U.S. invasion.)
But Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., said that threat is overblown.
"I don't accept that. I think that runs counterintuitive to everything I know about the people in the Middle East," Hagel said in May 8 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations. "The Sunnis and the Shias and the Kurds do not embrace al-Qaida. They do not support al-Qaida. They do not want al-Qaida running their country."
Others acknowledge the risks, but say they are outweighed by the costs of the war, including damage to U.S. prestige; a stretched Army; and the diversion from other terrorist threats. The debate on U.S. troops in Iraq essentially comes down to whether proponents thinks the risks are greater in staying or going.
"Sadly, at this point the best thing we can do is deliberately get out of there," said retired Maj. Gen. John Batiste, who led the Army's 1st Infantry Division in Iraq.
Won't Iraq become a terrorist safe haven? "It probably will be. But you know what? We created this condition," said Batiste, arguing that it's more important to fix the Army and rethink U.S. counterterrorism strategy.
A January 2007 National Intelligence Estimate warned that a rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops "would lead to a significant increase in the scale and scope of sectarian conflict in Iraq." Al-Qaida in Iraq would use parts of the country to plan terrorist attacks inside and outside Iraq, the report said, and Turkey might invade to stop Kurdish moves toward independence.
Pollack, who was a supporter of overthrowing Saddam, said the Bush administration ignored all the risks of an invasion and assumed that the best-case scenarios would come to pass. Now, he warned, withdrawal supporters are making the same error.
"We shouldn't leave Iraq the same way we went into it," he said.
CONTAINING THE DAMAGE
If the United States decides it can't stop civil war in Iraq, an option short of withdrawal is to redeploy U.S. troops out of Iraq's cities and closer to its borders. There, they would provide haven for refugees fleeing the violence and try to stop foreign fighters from crossing into Iraq.
U.S. diplomacy would be pivotal in preventing Iraq from becoming a battlefield for its neighbors. Washington would have to persuade Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia not to intervene to defend their interests.
The past record of containing spillovers from civil war "is poor," states a January Brookings Institution report. "Despite these odds, if Iraq does descend into all-out civil war, the United States probably will have no choice but to try to contain it."
The report recommended more than a dozen steps, including establishing "catch basins" in Iraq borders to protect refugees. "This option would require the extensive and continued use of U.S. forces," it said.
Pollack acknowledged that containment "is going to be hard to make work" politically, not least because of the sight of U.S. soldiers ignoring the likely ethnic slaughter in Baghdad and other cities.
Another option, supported by Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., and others, is to partition Iraq into zones for Sunni Muslims, Shiites and Kurds. The proposal hasn't won wide backing.
(McClatchy correspondent Renee Schoof contributed to this report.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.