THE BLOG
04/17/2007 09:03 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Triage Time in Iraq

There's a wide split in US public opinion about what should be done in Iraq. The latest Gallup Poll reveals that twenty percent of respondents say "withdraw immediately," thirteen percent insist "send more troops," and the remainder believe we should leave sometime in the future: thirty-eight percent want withdrawal "within twelve months," and twenty-six percent say we should "take as many years as needed." Steadily diminishing numbers of Americans believe we can "win" in Iraq, but there's persistent sentiment the US should do more before we leave. The best option is to go into triage mode.

Triage is the battlefield process used to sort victims, "the determination of priorities for action in an emergency." That's where we are in Iraq: recognition that many aspects of Bush's Iraq policy are going to die on the battlefield. Since it's not possible to "win" in Iraq, it's time to adopt a strategy that minimizes our losses. In place of the "keep on keeping on" approach adopted by President Bush, we need a cold-blooded strategy that admits Iraq is broken and can't be glued together again.

A triage strategy begins with telling the truth: there's a dire emergency in Iraq. Despite the president's surge initiative, conditions are not getting better and there's no reason to have confidence in the elected government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

There's a wide difference of opinion about how to respond to this emergency and divergent views about what will happen when US forces leave Iraq. Writing in the The Sunday New York Times Magazine Noah Feldman typifies the conflicted American mind: "Allowing the collapse of [Iraq] would, in fact, mean handing victory to the most violent jihadists -- a result that would be irresponsible for any president who thought the United States was actually endangered by Islamic terrorism. Fighting Al Qaeda is as good a label as any for what we should be doing in Iraq -- trying to hold off large-scale slaughter long enough to create a stable power-sharing government that would actually be worthy of the name." Feldman opines the US should persist with roughly the same level of troops in Iraq: he's in the "withdraw, take as many years as needed" Gallup category.

There are obvious problems with the approach "Bush broke it, but we've gotta fix it--sorta." Feldman appears unwilling to admit that the US occupation has gone beyond the point of diminishing returns, unable to let Bush's utopian conception of Iraq to die. But wishful thinking is not a sound basis for decision-making. What's needed is calm, pragmatic leadership in the manner of Churchill and Roosevelt. A style we cannot expect from George Bush.

Triage decision-making must be based upon clear principles that most Americans agree with. The obvious first principle is that the US homeland must be protected. Here, two issues stand out: the continued deployment of large numbers of US troops in Iraq weakens our military both in terms of morale and in terms of our capacity to defend ourselves in arenas other than Iraq. In addition, continuing to spend billions of dollars on the occupation of Iraq is unsustainable.

The second principle is that our military efforts should focus on the eradication of Al Qaeda. This suggests that rather than be involved in a civil war in Iraq, our troops should be deployed in Afghanistan and the neighboring Pakistani state of Waziristan. The bulk of intelligence estimates indicate there are, at most, a couple of thousand Al Qaeda operatives in Iraq. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda is headquartered in eastern Afghanistan.

The third principle is that Iraqis must govern themselves in a way that is satisfactory, rather than ideal. We must recognize it is not possible "to create a stable power-sharing government" in Iraq. The country is an artificial entity cobbled together by the British from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire. The Bush Administration has made several attempts to create power-sharing governments and they've failed. Realistically, the best we can hope for is a soft partition of the country into Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni regions. This will lead to massive relocation and, unfortunately, additional bloodletting.

The fourth principle is that the Arab world cares about what happens in Iraq as much as the US does. The Iraq Study Group made the sensible proposal that a regional conference be convened to consider what to do with Iraq. The US should use this forum to announce that it is withdrawing troops from Iraq and requires the help of neighboring states to minimize the resulting bloodshed.

Realistically, there won't be triage decision-making until there's a new president. In the meantime, the worst of modern presidents is going to keep on pursuing his illusion of "victory" in Iraq. The fact that George W. Bush determinedly walks deeper into quicksand doesn't mean that Americans have to follow. But, we do need to gain perspective on what should be done. That's the value of recognizing we must set priorities in the middle of an emergency: it's triage time in Iraq and some of our good intentions are going to die on the battlefield.