- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 25, 2004

In the early 1960s, the great strategist Herman Kahn provoked us to think the “unthinkable.” The unthinkable then was thermonuclear war, how it might start, how it might be fought and end, and how to prevent it from happening. Today, Iraq is far removed from the “balance of terror” that could have eviscerated society in a nuclear firestorm.But Kahn’s advice to think the unthinkable surely applies.

The unthinkable is not American withdrawal from Iraq, either at the request of a new Iraqi government or because of demands at home by a public and Congress no longer willing to pay the price and bear the burden of”stayingthe course” to democratize that chaotic land. The “unthinkable” for this administration is: What else must be done now before the only option becomes withdrawal?

First, several disclaimers: Long before bombs fell on Baghdad, this column argued that winning the peace would prove more difficult and expensive than routing the Iraqi army and deposing Saddam and would require more people on the ground.

Second, this column agreed with the administration that there was no alternative except to stay the course. But, as conditions in Iraq festered, it called for fundamental change in White House policies. Today, the news from Iraq seems only to go from bad to worse. When the new government will be announced is unknown. However, it must be before June 30, when “sovereignty,” still undefined, is transferred to Iraq. No doubt there will be further attacks to hinder both the establishment of this government and impede a turnover. As a result, there is a growing groundswell from both the American left and right calling for withdrawal and a clearly stated exit strategy.

President Bush’s Monday speech offered specifics on the way ahead but made no real fundamental change in policy. While the Vietnam analogy does not fit, there are lessons from Vietnam that are worth remembering if the administration decides to consider this unthinkable.

Vietnam proved not to have strategic consequences. Other dominoes did not fall, except in Washington with President Lyndon Johnson’s abdication in 1968. Iraq will have strategic consequences. They are likely to be profound. If the United States fails, more than its reputation will suffer. Jihadists and extremists will be emboldened to expand their political ambitions. The United States and its friends inside and outside the region will be less safe and secure. What then are some “unthinkables” for the administration to ponder if the situation is as grave as many Americans are coming to believe?

In Vietnam, the Nixon administration turned to “Vietnamization,” that is placing as much responsibility for security as possible with the South Vietnamese, and embarked on a training program to that end. Vietnamization was partially successful until American withdrawal opened the gates for the North to flood South. Today, “Iraqization” on a crash basis is needed as the priority. We have weeks, or possibly a few months, to get this done and cannot wait until year’s end to turn out hundreds of thousands of Iraqi defense, security and police forces, realizing that, at best, only an imperfect outcome will be achieved. Forming joint U.S.-Iraqi units can help where the presence of American personnel can provide everything from confidence-building to training to access to modern equipment vital to winning this struggle.

In 1965, retired Army Lt. Gen. James Gavin, commander of the 82nd Airborne during World War II, argued for an “enclave” strategy where U.S. forces would redeploy to sanctuaries to backstop the South Vietnamese army, rather than continue with the counterproductive “search and destroy”tactics.Gen. Gavin’s idea was summarily rejected. Yet, while moving speedily to Iraqization, a similar enclave concept could have great merit 40 years later, using Americans on the ground as a backup to support and reinforce Iraqi security forces.

Since the administration intends to stay, more forces will be needed, if only to relieve the strain on the Army and Marine Corps. One suggestion that will not be popular with the Navy and the Air Force is to call for 50,000 to 60,000 volunteers from those services for duty ashore in Iraq, training them in a few months for these tasks, something we did in Vietnam.

Last, the administration needs international help. The president should meet with other leaders, perhaps at the G-8 summit next month or at a separate gathering of heads of state, to work out an acceptable political arrangement to move ahead in Iraq with international support. Should that fail, then it is better to find out sooner than later.

If these ideas or others like them are unthinkable, the course is set. We will have no option but to withdraw, and not necessarily on our terms and conditions. That would obviously not produce a nuclear holocaust. But retreat will have many gloomy and dangerous consequences.

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