Options for U.S. Policy in Iraq

Arguments over U.S. policy in Iraq are currently dominating the policy debate. The number of “strategies” for Iraq increases commensurate with the intensity of the debate.

This short document, which was originally published on the Web site of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, aims to dispassionately lay out several of the most prominent options regarding U.S. policy in Iraq. While there are dozens of ideas regarding how to proceed, for each option listed below, an influential politician or analyst has presented the argument publicly. A link to a source document is available after each option.


The current approach by the Bush administration was formally articulated in November 2005 and emphasizes a security strategy centered on the creation of independent Iraqi military and police forces that can help the new Iraqi government protect and sustain itself. This policy aims to enable the U.S. military to “stand down” as new Iraqi military units “stand up.” There are currently an estimated 280,000 members of the Iraqi security forces. SOURCE


During a press conference on October 24, Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and General George Casey revealed that the Iraqi government has agreed to a timetable for the creation of a “national compact,” which includes disarming militias, sharing oil resources, establishing provincial elections, and the creation of a national reconciliation program. While this option does not appear to be fundamentally different from “Clear, Hold, Build,” (and could be seen as an evolution) it clearly places more emphasis on taking specific steps within a clear timeframe than previous articulations of U.S. strategy. Khalilzad stated that he expects this national compact to be in place in a year’s time. SOURCE


First articulated by Senator Joseph Biden and Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, in The New York Times last May (with subsequent versions in the The Washington Post and the The Wall Street Journal), this option encourages the creation of three formal regions based on Iraq’s Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish populations. With Baghdad as a “federal” city, a central government would control national defense, foreign affairs, and oil revenues. Biden and Gelb concede that this would involve the relocation of large numbers of Iraqis, but argue that extensive internal migration is already taking place. SOURCE


This option argues for the introduction of thousands more U.S. troops into Iraq in order to enable U.S. commanders to take and hold more ground. Most commonly associated with Senator John McCain (who has been making this argument since November 2003), deploying more troops would arguably reduce the need for U.S. commanders to constantly move soldiers around the country in order to focus on any particular hot spot – what McCain calls the “whack-a-mole” problem. While there are serious questions as to whether the U.S. military could sustain an expanded troop presence in Iraq given the strain on the Army and Marine Corps, some analysts argue that sending more troops is necessary to prevent failure. SOURCE


Coined by former Reagan-era defense official Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress, “strategic redeployment” refers to a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces that would lower troop levels by not replacing units as they rotate out of Iraq after their tours of duty end. This option would station an Army division in Kuwait and several Marine units in the Persian Gulf to act as a quick reaction force if Iraq devolves into total civil war. SOURCE


Commonly associated with Congressman John Murtha, this option argues that the U.S. military can do little to prevent an ongoing civil war and should leave Iraq as soon as possible. This option is predicated on the belief that the U.S. presence is impeding, rather than enabling, progress toward stability in Iraq. This option would also station a quick reaction force in the region. SOURCE


Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to President Carter and now a trustee and counselor at CSIS, outlined a four-point plan for Iraq last April. Brzezinski believes Washington should quietly ask Iraqi leaders to publicly ask the U.S. to leave, conduct negotiations on disengagement, convene a regional conference aimed at establishing stability, and host an international donors’ conference for Iraqi reconstruction. SOURCE


Argued most strongly by influential defense analyst Andrew Krepinevich, this option would dramatically increase the number of U.S. troops that are embedded in Iraq’s military units. While there are 144,000 American troops in Iraq, there are only approximately 4,000 advisers that live, train, and fight with Iraqi units. This option would double or triple the number of advisers in order to strengthen Iraq’s nascent military forces. SOURCE

Many of the above arguments also recommend increased American diplomacy with all of Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran and Syria. Several options also favor the convening of a regional conference similar to the December 2001 Bonn Conference on Afghanistan to negotiate an end to sectarian strife, to establish power-sharing agreements, and to create regional confidence-building measures.

Anthony Cordesman, who holds CSIS’s Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy, has drafted several detailed assessments concerning alternative options for Iraq that can be found at http://www.csis.org/burke, including Options for Iraq: The Almost Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

Other influential analysts who have recently outlined Iraq options include Elliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins University, Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek, former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, and several experts who debated U.S. policy in Iraq in the journal Foreign Affairs. Finally, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Congressman Lee Hamilton, is expected to release its report at some point after the November elections.

There are clearly plenty of ideas concerning how best to deal with the ongoing war in Iraq. While the politically charged pre-election environment makes it difficult to debate U.S. policy in Iraq, one hopes that a bipartisan spirit will emerge after the elections that enables a productive and meaningful dialogue.

Shawn Brimley is a research associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.