These and other tactics, Byman and Pollack conclude, "could be fashioned into a broader strategy for preventing an Iraqi civil war from destabilizing the entire region." They caution that "in the case of all-out civil wars, history has demonstrated that incremental steps and half-measures frequently prove disastrous... America's determination to stabilize Iraq on the cheap and postpone making hard decisions have been major elements of the disasters that have unfolded there since 2003."
What's most useful about this report, in my view, is that it makes a serious attempt to foresee unpleasant outcomes and devise responses that might mitigate the damage. Why the Bush administration failed to do more and better contingency planning for worst-case scenarios remains a tragic mystery.
At the same time, many of the remedies prescribed by Pollack and Byman strike me as less than miracle medicines. For example, they propose laying down "red lines" and letting Tehran know that to cross them will "provoke a direct American response, whether in the form of political, economic or even military pressure." To date, the U.S. has been incapable of effectively applying such pressures – even in response to the regime's role in killing American soldiers and continuing to pursue nuclear weapons. How likely is it that, following an American withdrawal from Iraq, we'd respond in a more muscular a manner?
And calls to "bolster regional stability," to "make a greater effort to stabilize Lebanon and revitalize a Middle East peace process" between Israelis and Palestinians sound good but what, really, is there to do that has not been done?
More to the point, reading Pollack and Byman describe how catastrophic an Iraqi collapse would be, and how much effort – not least military – the U.S. would need to exert to protect its interests, leads to one clear conclusion: Gen. Petraeus' mission should be given unstinting and bipartisan support as long as there is any possibility it can succeed. That is what would be best for America – and also for the next president, not least if he (or she) happens to be a Democrat.