Two British newspapers have recently claimed that the United States and Great Britain have devised a game plan for withdrawing their troops from Iraq by early 2007. The plan would have three stages. First, a moderate reduction in troops; second, the concentration of Allied troops into secure bases; and third, the simultaneous withdrawal of these remaining forces, in sharp contrast to a gradual, stage-by-stage, withdrawal.
Immediately on hearing this report, the governments of both the United States and Great Britain denied any such plans were in the offing. A spokesman for the British even made use of one of President Bush's favorite bits of rhetoric, declaring that the Allied troops would not "cut and run."
What are we to make of all this? Did the British newspaper simply get it all wrong; or is there something else going on?
Let me first of all note that I am one of those people who has previously criticized Bush for his "stay the course" rhetoric and his continual insistence that we cannot "cut and run" in Iraq. Long ago my father gave me very sound, practical advice about running a business, and it can be applied to both politics and war as well — to wit, to survive you must learn to "cut your losses," so that you do not continue to throw good money after bad. Thus, if we have failed to achieve our aims in Iraq, it is essential that we must recognize this failure as soon as possible, in order to keep our initial failure from turning into a full-scale catastrophe.
I still think that my father's logic was true; but, after reading the report in the British newspapers, I was forced to go back and rethink my previous objections to Bush's cut and run rhetoric. For, if the British newspapers got it right, then I realized that it is essential that Bush continues to insist, as emphatically as he can, that the Allied troops will not cut and run.
What is most important to note about the withdrawal plan reported by the British newspapers is that it is governed purely by military, and not by political, considerations. In a stable and pacified Iraq, there would be no reason to concentrate the troops into bases, and no reason to make sure that all the remaining troops were removed simultaneously.
Indeed, it is this emphasis on simultaneous withdrawal of a huge number of Allied numbers that reveals the underlying fear that could alone explain this method of withdrawal — the fear of leaving small and isolated clusters of troops in hostile territory. In short, the move both to concentrate forces into bases and then evacuate them simultaneously is precisely the right way to save forces that would otherwise be endangered by encirclement by an enemy. Or, to put the matter another way, it is the only viable plan for withdrawing our troops in the worst- case scenario — one in which our troops find themselves virtually trapped within a hostile Iraq.
Yet, if this is in fact how we are planning to withdraw from Iraq, if the worst case scenario comes to pass, then it is absolutely imperative that this plan must be kept secret, or, if word of it leaks out, it is of the utmost importance to deny such a plan as emphatically as possible. Indeed, if this is our plan, then Bush must continue to preach his stay the course rhetoric, and to reaffirm over and over again that we will not cut and run.
An example from history might help.
One of the more puzzling questions about the Second World War, and one that is still shrouded in controversy, is why Hitler "let" the English and French allied forces escape at Dunkirk in 1940. Why didn't he simply finish them off while they were trying to evacuate?
Historians have offered interesting explanations for Hitler's failure to take advantage of the Allied route at Dunkirk. According to one, Hitler believed it was "unthinkable" that the British were trying to escape from France back to Great Britain. He had "always warned that once the British got a toehold anywhere it was almost impossible to dislodge them" — a conclusion that Hitler had reached, based on his personal experience fighting the Brits in Flanders during the World War I. Thus Hitler "was convinced that the British would fight to the last man in France and that he must deploy his forces accordingly."
It is tempting to conclude that Hitler may also have been influenced by Churchill's rhetorical insistence the English would never abandon French soil. Had Churchill announced ahead of time, "Well, if the fighting gets too tough, we can always evacuate our troops across the English Channel." It is impossible to believe that Hitler would not have taken note of this. In which case our memory of Dunkirk would not be one of a successful evacuation, but one of a military debacle that would probably had removed Churchill from power and Great Britain from the war.
For that exact same reason, Bush must continue with his stay the course rhetoric, and must disclaim all intentions to cut and run. Similarly, both the American and British governments must categorically deny the reports of a carefully planned military evacuation if such an evacuation is to succeed.
By the same logic, those of us who (myself included) have been critical of Bush's gung-ho rhetoric must rethink our own positions in light of the worst-case scenario that could well unfold in Iraq over the next year. Critics of Bush (like myself) have been focusing far too much on seeing Iraq as a failure of policy and get exasperated by Bush's persistent optimism in the face of continuing political setbacks. We wish to see Bush acknowledge that he has made a political mistake, but we have not sufficiently thought out the military implications of such an admission on the situation of the Allied troops still in Iraq.
My guess (for the little that it is worth) is that the withdrawal plan reported by the British newspapers was no accident and that word of this report was deliberately leaked by the British and American military in order to alert us to the fact that we may well be facing the worst-case scenario. One in which our strategy is no longer to stabilize Iraq, but to avoid getting caught in a militarily untenable situation where our troops are forced to literally fight their way out of Iraq at great cost to both our political and military prestige. On my interpretation, the leak was designed to be a "wake-up call" to those of us who are still thinking of Iraq in terms of political success or failure, and to shock us into recognizing that we may well soon be facing a critical situation where the only important question is not whether to get our troops out, but how to get them out alive.
If my guess is correct, then it also explains why there must be official and emphatic denials of the reports given by the two British newspapers. If we in fact have such plans, then it would be immensely hazardous for us to officially announce them since it would alert our enemies, both inside and outside Iraq, that we are fearful of the military vulnerability of our dispersed and scattered troops and that we are prepared to take the necessary steps to reduce and eliminate this vulnerability.
One of the first rules of war is never to let your enemy know the point at which you feel most vulnerable. Yet it is equally important in a war to make it clear to one's own side just how serious a crisis has become in order to keep critics from focusing on irrelevant issues that distract both them and the public from the true gravity of the situation facing their nation.
I don't expect everyone to accept my interpretation of the withdrawal plan reported by the two British newspapers (which may well turn out to have been completely bogus.) But it is enough for me to question my own earlier criticism of Bush's Churchill-like rhetoric, and to wonder if we are not dealing with a case where Bush has no choice but to continue the same rhetoric, because it is the only way of assuring that the Allied troops will be able to extricate themselves from Iraq without a painful military debacle that would spell a catastrophic loss of American prestige — a loss that our enemies would waste no time in exploiting to the hilt.
Paradoxically, the stay the course rhetoric of Bush turns out to be the wisest approach both for the best-case scenario in Iraq as well as for the worst-case scenario. But then, the same thing might have been said of Churchill's rhetoric as well. As Dunkirk proved, in wartime mere rhetoric can become a powerful weapon, both for achieving victory and, what is often even more important, for minimizing the costs of defeat.