Exit Strategies For Iraq

While George W. Bush and John Kerry disagree on the legitimacy of the war in Iraq and how the occupation is being carried out, they generally share the same views on a US exit strategy.

But just as the planning for the peace proved overly optimistic, so, too, could the candidates' ideas about withdrawal.

Both men, though acknowledging a worsening insurgency, expect to work with an Iraqi government that gains in legitimacy and strength and wants American troops to stick around until they're no longer needed.

Both men forswear cutting and running. While Mr. Kerry says that if he were elected, he would begin withdrawing troops within the first six months of his administration, he's giving himself a whole term to get them all out. Mr. Bush says US troops will stay as long as necessary and no longer, but the US Army says it plans to maintain current levels at least through 2007.

As the occupation has shown, though, facts on the ground don't have much respect for best-case scenarios. It is not at all out of the realm of possibility, for instance, that a government hostile to the United States could be elected, and demand the US leave earlier than expected - risking civil war in Iraq.

A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll in April found that while the majority of Iraqis said they would feel less secure without the coalition, 57 percent said foreign troops should leave anyway. One can only imagine that this sentiment has hardened and spread in the intervening months, and that when election campaigning begins in Iraq, a good many candidates will stump on a send-the-Yankees-home platform.

If they dominated the newly elected national assembly, they could ask the coalition forces to leave under the theory that those very forces perpetuate the insurgency. If the coalition leaves prematurely, though, Iraq risks breaking up.

This chain of events does not have to be. Some Iraqi experts believe that US-backed interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi will marshal a political coalition that wins in the expected January elections.

Still, with the CIA giving three not-very-hopeful outlooks for Iraq (the worst being civil war, the best being tenuous stability), it would be unwise to count on the best outcome.

The candidates may not want to talk about anything less than the best-case scenario out of concern for dampening troop morale or boosting the insurgents. But inside their respective headquarters, let's hope they're seriously considering them all.

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