Suppose President Bush -- or for that matter a Democratic successor -- were to decide that the project of reconstructing Iraq was impossible or too costly. What would cut-and-run look like, and what consequences would it have?
Of course, an administration would do something that would look more like "cut and shuffle" than skedaddle. Somalia after the "Blackhawk Down" incident would provide the model -- a pulling back from engagement in heavily populated areas, a hunkering down of American forces in their compounds, a declaration that the main mission (overthrowing Saddam Hussein or neutering Iraq as a menace to its neighbors) had been accomplished, and a disengagement over a year or two. During that period, authorized but anonymous senior officials would complain about the impossibility of getting Iraqis to take charge of their own destiny, while U.S. troops on the ground would do what they could to obtain a decent interval of stability before the whole mess disintegrated into obvious failure.
The cardinal fact is that no one would be fooled. Everyone -- in Iraq, here and abroad -- would understand what was going on, as was the case in Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia. Adnan Pachachi, the oldest member of the Iraqi Governing Council, put it this way a few days ago: "In the current security crisis, any talk of a withdrawal would swell the ranks of the insurgents." Of course it would -- knowing that the hard men were winning, would you want to be on our side or theirs? The locals have to live there, and people want to side with the winners, particularly brutal winners. The insurgents would have no incentive to make it easy for us -- the more humiliating the American exit, the better the chance that the United States would stay out of that part of the world for good and the more satisfying the revenge.
Let us say, though, that American forces nonetheless got out, accompanied (one would hope) by tens if not hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who had put their faith in their American liberators and at least had received asylum in return. What would then happen in Iraq? A return of Hussein to complete power? Not likely: His army is in ruins, and neither Kurds nor Shiites would be as easy victims as in the past. But internecine mayhem? Surely -- both within the various confessional communities and certainly between them, there would be ample opportunities for preemptive or retaliatory slaughter, particularly in towns with mixed populations (including Baghdad). It might settle down after a while, with a Kurdish republic in the north boxed in by Turkey, Syria, Iran and the Sunnis (all hostile), a turbulent Shiite south (with a lot of oil but little governance) and a Sunni center including, in all likelihood, control of a divided Baghdad. This would be the playground for all kinds of foreign parties -- Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Islamist fanatics of all stripes. If the United States did not like Afghanistan as a home for jihadists, it can expect to like such a base in the heart of the Arab world even less.
Regionally, of course, the losers would be numerous: Jordan, a lonely island of economic and social progress; Israel; and the gulf states, whose alliance with the United States would have reaped a large dividend of instability. Turkey, however, might welcome the opportunity to isolate and subordinate the Kurds; Iran would see opportunities in the south and a salutary warning to its budding domestic reformers, and Saudi Arabia would be mixed -- its leadership more fearful of chaos to the north than it was of Hussein's dictatorship, its Islamist opposition encouraged.
The United States would bury its dead and get back to business. But the lessons for its political leaders, and indeed for everyone else in the world, would be simple: The United States cannot and will not, under any conditions, conduct a counterinsurgency. When it tries, drips and spurts of casualties will cause it to lose its nerve. For all potential opponents of the United States, the ultimate deterrent is not a nuclear weapon but a few dozen suicide bombers and trucks to carry them, augmented by a couple of hundred grenade-launcher-toting irregulars. Not much, all things considered. Hussein made clear in 1990 that he had learned (he thought) the lesson of Beirut 1983 -- Americans cannot take casualties. In this war he seems to have learned the "Blackhawk Down" lesson -- Americans may be able to fight a three-week conventional war, but not a multiyear guerrilla struggle. If the United States leaves Iraq under these conditions, he will be proven right. And if he pops up in person to affirm such after we leave, the evidence will be irrefutable.
Cut-and-run cannot be disguised, and the price to be paid for it would be appalling. No one else would take on the burdens of Iraq; talk of handing it over to the United Nations or NATO is wishfulness, not strategy. Whatever one's view of the war's rationale, conception, planning or conduct, our war it remains, and we had best figure out how to win it.
The writer is professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.