O'Hanlon and Pollack admit that "victory" is probably no longer attainable—only some "sustainable stability" that might allow Iraq to keep itself together when U.S. forces eventually depart. But this reveals the fatal flaw in their argument. The lid will remain on the Iraq pot only as long as we are willing to commit to our current troop levels. Reducing troop levels from the current 160,000 to 60,000 or 80,000, and/or transitioning to an "adviser model," will allow the situation to deteriorate out of control, as it did in 2005 when U.S. forces drew down and pulled back from most Iraqi cities. Withdrawing immediately will cause the Maliki government to collapse and the region to descend into a hellish ethno-sectarian war atop some of the world's largest oil fields.
Adm. Michael Mullen, the nominee for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate armed services committee yesterday that the surge will end in April 2008, when current troop levels become unsustainable. When that occurs, and assuming Iraqi forces do not become fully capable of filling the vacuum left by departing U.S. troops, Gen. David Petraeus will be forced to tailor his operations to fit the forces he has. With too few troops, Petraeus will have to economize, perhaps reverting to the "key cities" strategy pursued in 2006 plus some kind of robust advisory presence in Iraqi army and police units. This model failed once before, allowing sectarian militias, criminals, and insurgents to roam with near freedom, and it will likely fail now, too.
So, what are we to do? Sadly, as professor Andrew Bacevich writes in this week's New Republic (subscription required), we may be past the point where good deeds can save Iraq:
[T]his much is certain: The moment when Americans might have persuaded Iraqis to embrace them as liberators has long since passed. We have failed to make good on too many promises. In our heavy-handed efforts to root out insurgents, we have too frequently mistaken the innocent for the guilty. However inadvertently, we have killed and maimed too many civilians. Sadly, in places like Abu Ghraib and Haditha, we have committed too many crimes. We have just plain screwed up too many times.
If it is true that victory, or anything close to it, lies beyond our reach, we can no longer justify the cost of persevering in Iraq. It is time to begin the long march home.