Imagine that it's 2009 and a Democrat is in the White House. He (or she) determines that the U.S. mission in Iraq has failed irretrievably. What happens next?
It is not too much of a stretch to say that Kenneth Pollack and Daniel Byman -- foreign policy analysts who served in the Clinton administration and strong candidates to serve in a future Democratic administration -- have proposed an answer in the form of an "analysis paper."
Pollack and Byman, currently researchers with the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, do not contend that U.S. defeat in Iraq has become inevitable. It is too soon to know whether the new counter-insurgency strategy being implemented by Gen. David Petraeus will or will not succeed, and they are not among those advocating that his mission be undermined.
But they do believe that whoever sits is in the Oval Office should have a Plan B on the shelf: a course of action that, in the event Iraq collapses, protects American interests as much as possible. "Spillover from an Iraq civil war could be disastrous," they write. "[I]t is imperative that the United States develop a plan for containing an all-out Iraqi civil war... America has too many strategic interests at stake in the Middle East to ignore the consequences" and walk away.
Should the U.S. withdraw from Iraq leaving behind a government not competent to defend itself, Pollack and Byman predict, policy-makers will have to choose between "terrible options and worse ones." Most of the country would quickly be overrun by Sunni groups tied to al-Qaeda and Shia groups tied to Iran. It must be expected that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis will be killed in battles and acts of terrorism. Millions more would flee.
The authors suggest creating refugee camps "along Iraq's borders inside Iraqi territory." Protecting the camps, preventing them from being seized by extremists -- while at the same time keeping the refugees from flooding into such American-allied countries as Jordan and Kuwait -- "would require the extensive and continued use of U.S. forces."
A major "intelligence and reconnaissance effort" would be necessary to identify havens set up by anti-American terrorists groups. Air power and/or Special Forces would need to be deployed to destroy them.
The flow of Iraqi oil almost certainly would be disrupted. Advance planning for the economic impact on the U.S. and the global economy would be imperative.
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.