Those of us who oppose the war need to recognize that there are no easy answers, and we need to ask the hard questions. If it is true that the "surge" has led to a significant reduction in sectarian violence in Baghdad--and I have seen no credible reports questioning that--we have to ask whether a withdrawal of American troops will lead to an upsurge in deaths.
Certainly we cannot keep American forces in Iraq for decades (although the logic of the administration's argument could lead to that), and it may be that keeping the lid on will simply mean that the violence will return once the pressure is released. It may also be the case that the level of violence in Iraq is not being diminished by the limited American escalation; that a rise in the number of deaths outside the capital more or less balances the lower casualties in the city.
Are we prepared to accept a continued American presence in Iraq if the evidence shows that it will save lives? I am not saying what that evidence must be, and frankly I do no know what would prove that case to me. But assuming that, like Potter Stewart judging obscenity, we know it when we see it, will we temper our anti-war stance if the proof is there?
The best answer to these questions that I have seen recently comes from a letter to The New York Times by Ronald L. Spiers, who was a State Dept. official and ambassador in the Middle East in both Republican and Democratic administrations.
Spiers suggests that: "We ask the Iraqi government and Parliament to decide formally whether they want coalition forces to stay or go. If Parliament does not have a majority for a request that we stay, we will pack up and leave as quickly as possible in a safe, orderly manner."
That suggestion is not particularly new; a number of liberals have said pretty much the same thing, knowing that the Bush administration--no more committed to Democracy in Iraq than it is here at home--would reject it. But Spiers goes on:
"If the government and Parliament go on record as wanting coalition forces to stay, we would leave a force large enough to provide Iraqi forces with needed training, reconstruction and logistic support, intelligence support in tracking foreign fighters, and its own force protection.
"It would stay as long as both sides agree that it is necessary and desirable, with no timetable for departure. It would have no combat role in dealing with internal sectarian conflict."There's no chance that this approach will be accepted by Bush, Cheney & Co., but as they become more and more isolated, such a limitation on the American role could become attractive to an increasing number of GOP senators and congressmen, especially those up for re-election in 2008.
Spiers' suggestion explicitly leaves the matter of sectarian violence to Iraqis, and implicitly rejects the idea that Americans can be a buffer between the contending forces. In the long run, and the peoples of the Middle East know all about long runs, that is certainly true.
Spiers's idea may be the best that anyone can come up with in this tragic situation.