One issue at the heart of the debate over President Bush's new Iraq strategy is whether it would be, as the president says, disastrous to remove U.S. troops before the new government is firmly established and the new security forces can maintain stability. Some experts say the United States cannot influence the long-term situation in Iraq no matter how long the troops stay, and that the consequences of a quick withdrawal are much less severe than the administration claims. VOA Pentagon Correspondent Al Pessin has been looking into the issue.
When he announced his plan last week, President Bush acknowledged that establishing security and stability in Iraq has been more difficult than he had expected, and that even with 21,000 more U.S. troops it will take at least several more months. But he said this is something the United States must do, and that a premature withdrawal from Iraq would be a disaster.
"The consequences of failure are clear," said President Bush. "Radical Islamic extremists would grow in strength and gain new recruits. They would be in a better position to topple moderate governments, create chaos in the region and use oil revenues to fund their ambitions."
The president said failure in Iraq would also create a safe haven for terrorists, and would embolden Iran in its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
The next day, his new defense secretary, Robert Gates, made more dire predictions when he spoke to a congressional committee.
"Whatever one's views of how we got to this point in Iraq, there is widespread agreement that failure there would be a calamity that would haunt our nation in the future and in the region," said Robert Gates.
Secretary Gates said a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq before the government is stable could result in what he called "a regional conflagration," and would be a "humiliating defeat" for the United States that would undermine its credibility worldwide.
Many experts agree with the administration's predictions about the fallout from a U.S. defeat in Iraq, including some who did not support the invasion back in 2003 but now believe Iraq is the central front in the war on terrorism. But others argue that the predictions are exaggerated.
"I don't think the consequences will be as dire for the United States as they're portrayed by some folks," said David Tretler.
David Tretler is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who teaches strategy at the government's National Defense University. He says the United States should withdraw its troops from Iraq as quickly as possible, and can do so without serious consequences for U.S. national security. He says even if U.S. troops stay in Iraq and establish what seems to be stability, it probably won't last very long after the troops leave.
"The factions and the conflicts that exist within Iraqi society are so deep, so unresolvable, that they don't have the capacity to create an effective, reasonably representative government that will serve the needs of the majority of the people," he said. "Are you willing to continue to pour money and lives and effort into trying to create something in Iraq which just may be impossible to create?"
Another skeptic of the dire predictions is Richard Clarke, who was President Clinton's chief counterterrorism adviser and also worked for President Bush until 2003. Since then, he has been a sharp critic of the administration's approach to fighting terrorism.
"I believe that in either case, whether the last U.S. combat force unit leaves 12 months from now or seven years from now, the result will be largely the same," said Richard Clarke. "In post-U.S.-combat-troop Iraq there is likely to be chaos."
Clarke says whatever Iraqi government emerges from that chaos is not likely to support terrorism, and if it does the United States can use a variety of diplomatic, intelligence and, if necessary, limited military means to address the problem. He says the Untied States can ensure that Iraq does not become a terrorist sanctuary without keeping troops there for an extended period.
"We can achieve our major national security goal vis a vis Iraq without being there," he said. "In fact, being there makes it more difficult to achieve that goal."
Clarke also dismisses talk of a regional war, saying it would not be in the interest of any of Iraq's neighbors. He says the only difference in the outcome of the Iraq conflict if the United States removes its combat troops sooner rather than later would be fewer U.S. casualties and less U.S. money spent.
But other experts support the Bush administration's view that the United States can and must prevent chaos in Iraq. Among them is Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute.
"If we allow Iraq to descend into chaos, it will become a weak state that will be a potential operational center for al-Qaida, a potential operational center for Iranian terrorist proxies," said Danielle Pletka. "It will become a nightmare."
Pletka says the key to avoiding that will be for the additional U.S. troops to help impose security in Baghdad and reduce the power of the militias.
"That is the moment when the groups that are now unwilling to reconcile politically will come to the table," she said.
She says that will establish the basis for long-term stability, avoiding the chaos the other analysts believe is unavoidable.
Based on public opinion polls, that view appears to be convincing fewer and fewer Americans. And at the same time more and more members of Congress are also indicating they do not believe it, including many from President Bush's own Republican Party.
Experts say the concerns about short term casualties and the long term prospects are combining to give the president and his new plan only a short time to show some success before public and congressional support erodes even further.