Leave Washington in the winter, return in midsummer. What will strike you is first the heat, then the humidity—and then the certainty. Out in the world, there are shades of gray. Inside the Beltway, there are black-and-white solutions. And everybody who is anybody has a plan for Iraq.
Hillary Clinton has a three-point plan; Barack Obama has a move-the-soldiers-from-Iraq-to-Afghanistan plan. House Democrats have a plan to take most troops out by next March; Senate Democrats have a plan to take them out by April. Some Senate Republicans want the president to shrink the size of the U.S. military in Iraq; other Senate Republicans want to let the surge run its course. Search the Web, listen to the radio, watch the news, and you can hear people arguing that if only we had more troops, fewer troops, or no troops at all, then everything would be OK again.
What is missing from this conversation is a dose of humility. More to the point, what is missing is the recognition that every single one of these plans contains the seeds of potential disaster, even catastrophe.
More troops? I hardly need elaborate on what's wrong with that plan, since so many in Congress do so every day. But for the record, I'll repeat the obvious: More troops means more American casualties, maybe many more casualties. Worse, the very presence of U.S. soldiers creates strife in some parts of Iraq, aggravating Iraqis, motivating al-Qaida, sparking violence. Besides, we've tried the surge, and the surge hasn't brought the results we wanted. And anyway, the surge simply can't be maintained, let alone expanded. There aren't that many more troops to send, even if we wanted to send them.
Fewer troops? This plan sounds like a reasonable compromise: Neither surge nor cut-and-run, just leave a few guys on the ground to train the Iraqis, guard the border, and fight the terrorists. It also sounds a touch naive: So, in the middle of a vast civil war, small groups of Americans will withdraw to some neutral outpost and announce that they would no longer like to be shot at, please? Both "guarding the border" and "fighting terrorism" are hard to do effectively without involving ourselves in wider political and ethnic struggles. There is also trouble with the "train the Iraqis" part of the plan, as Stephen Biddle spelled out in the Washington Post last week, since "training Iraqis" invariably puts us in the middle of military conflict. Besides, fewer Americans could mean more Iraqi violence; more Iraqi violence could mean more American casualties—not to mention more Iraqi casualties—which defeats the purpose of the plan altogether.
No troops? Though deeply appealing to the "we told you so" crowd, this plan is clothed in the greatest degree of hypocrisy. How many of the people who clamor for intervention in Darfur will also be clamoring to rush back into Iraq when the full-scale ethnic cleansing starts taking place? How many will take responsibility for the victims of genocide? I'm not saying there will be such a catastrophe, but there could be. Mass ethnic murders have certainly been carried out in Iraq before. Other possibilities include the creation of an Iranian puppet state; the creation of an al-Qaida outlaw state; or merely a regional war involving, say, Turkey, Iran, Syria, Jordan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, just for starters, and maybe Israel and Gaza, as well. Maybe these things would have never happened if we hadn't gone there in the first place, but if we leave, we'll be morally responsible.
Of course, I don't want to exaggerate: There are people who know that there is no perfect solution for Iraq. They tend to be people who are not running for president, vice president, or any other public office. Last weekend, I met a Marine about to depart for his second tour in Iraq. He wasn't exactly enthusiastic about going, nor was he particularly optimistic about what could be achieved. But he wasn't demanding to stay at home. If nothing else, he felt obliged to stick by the many Iraqis who had helped the Marines and who might well be murdered if the Marines left for good.
He had, in other words, perceived the only truth of which we can really be certain: There are no obvious solutions in Iraq, only policy changes that could make some things better and some things worse. Maybe much worse.