Iraq: Why Some Want to Stay the Course

In the first of two reports on the repercussions of staying engaged in Iraq or pulling out, we hear the arguments for staying the course.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

This week, we're exploring one of the biggest questions of the coming year: What the United States should do in Iraq? During 2006, we will pass the third anniversary since the US invasion. It's a year in which the Senate is demanding signs of progress, politicians are facing an election year and the Bush administration says the US troop presence may be reduced.

Over the next two days, we'll explore what the US should do next. Tomorrow, we will hear arguments from those who say the US is doing more harm than good and should withdraw quickly. Today, NPR national security correspondent Jackie Northam looks at the arguments for staying the course.

JACKIE NORTHAM reporting:

Put aside for now how the US got embroiled in Iraq. The more important questions for many people these days are: Do we stay, for how long and under what conditions? Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, compares Iraq to a hornet's nest.

Mr. MICHAEL RUBIN (Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute): When you have a hornet's nest, there are two good options. One: Leave it alone. Two: Get rid of the hornet's nest. But you don't want to not finish the job.

NORTHAM: Rubin says that would do more harm than good.

Mr. RUBIN: We've gone into Iraq. We've upset the status quo and I think it behooves us--it's a responsibility to make sure that Iraq is on a stable path in this case to democracy, because the alternative could be far worse.

NORTHAM: There's a genuine fear that Iraq could implode if the US decided to leave too quickly, says Robert Malley, the director of the Middle East to North Africa program at the International Crisis Group.

Mr. ROBERT MALLEY (International Crisis Group): Given where we are today in Iraq, a precipitous withdrawal of our troops is very likely to trigger a major civil war which would make what's happening now look like very little compared to the destruction and havoc that would rein if US forces withdrew entirely, immediately.

NORTHAM: And the fighting could well extend beyond Iraq's Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish communities, says Anthony Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. Cordesman says a US withdrawal could create problems throughout the Middle East.

Mr. ANTHONY CORDESMAN (Center for Strategic & International Studies): There will be a power vacuum where Iran is almost certain to move in and Iranian ties to the Iraqi Shiites are going to be much stronger. There is a very serious risk that the Sunni Arab states are going to come to the aid of the Iraqi Sunnis. And this is going to interact with the Islamist extremism which is the main source of terrorism in this region.

NORTHAM: Cordesman says that would be the worst case scenario. He thinks it's just as likely the US will end up muddling through the Iraq conflict with no absolute success and no dramatic failure.

Mr. CORDESMAN: Muddling means that e US forces are not on the street, they're not in combat every day, the casualties are going way down, the Iraqis are taking over, not as efficiently or as quickly as we wanted, but they are taking over.

NORTHAM: Colonel T.X. Hammes, a former Marine and author of a book on Iraq called "The Sling and the Stone," agrees there have been improvements in rebuilding the Iraqi army, but he says patience is needed.

Colonel T.X. HAMMES (Former Marine; Author, "The Sling and the Stone"): You can teach them to kick in a door and clear a room and you teach them to run their own organizations, to teach leadership that responds to civilian authority, to take the initiative, to run the logistics networks that they need without losing billions of dollars. All those sorts of things take time.

NORTHAM: And that realization has helped lower the high expectations the administration had going into Iraq. President Bush has defined success much more modestly during speeches in the past few weeks than he did in the previous two years, says Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Mr. LESLIE GELB (Council on Foreign Relations): It's not having a democracy, it's getting on the path to democracy. It's not having a state that is going to do all our bidding, but it is one that would be generally allied to us in the war on terror and so forth. I think those goals are reachable and they're sensible.

NORTHAM: Robert Malley, with the International Crisis Group, says the recent Iraqi elections present another opportunity, perhaps the last one, to get things right in Iraq.

Mr. MALLEY: I think there's a small window now where not only for the American people but the political class is prepared to give the administration one more chance to try to see if the politics in Iraq could be gotten right and sustain a military presence for that period. And if things get right, then we could consider maintaining it for some time but at vastly reduced numbers.

NORTHAM: The American Enterprise Institute's Rubin doesn't view the recent election as a turning point. He says there's no way to gauge what is a turning point until several years after the fact. Rubin says that even if the situation in Iraq remains as messy as it is right now, the US must stay the course.

Mr. RUBIN: If we withdraw from Iraq prematurely, before the job is done, the message that sends, not only to the Iraqis that supported us, but also to our future allies who might be willing to put their neck out on the line, is that they shouldn't take the risk, that the United States might talk a good game early one, but we don't have the staying power.

NORTHAM: Rubin says many in the Mideast saw the US withdrawal after the first Gulf War in 1991 as an abandonment. Rubin says he's not sure if the US will be able to recover in that region if it's seen to be abandoning Iraq again.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: So those are the arguments for staying in Iraq. Tomorrow, we will examine the arguments for leaving.

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