In his speech at New York University, Kerry said the US could expedite a viable exit strategy once it convinces other nations to accept a great share of the burden in Iraq and accelerates the pace of reconstruction.
By adhering to such a plan, Kerry said the next president “could begin to withdraw US forces starting next summer and realistically aim to bring all our troops home within the next four years”.
While the political implications of Kerry’s proposal remain unclear, the practicality of such a strategy is questionable, according to several military analysts who say events on the ground in Iraq will dictate the timetable around which the US can begin to withdraw troops.
“You can plan all you want, but unless things happen in Iraq, all the planning in the world won’t do much good,” said Judith Yaphe, an Iraq expert at the National Defense University.
The fate of Bush administration
Many military analysts have said the US will probably have to maintain a significant troop presence in Iraq for at least five years in order to achieve the goal of a stable democracy.
What is striking about Kerry’s plan, some experts say, is its similarity to the Bush administration’s present course of action. Bush has tried to persuade Washington’s NATO partners to contribute more money and manpower for operations in Iraq, but has met with stiff resistance.
“I think much of what Kerry recommends is very similar to what the Bush administration has been trying to do, but hasn’t been successful at,” Yaphe said.
Kerry has tried to hammer home the notion that US allies would be more likely to step up aid to Iraq if he were elected president. A change in administrations, he said, would allow for “a fresh start in Iraq.”
Will Europe help?
“We must make Iraq the world’s responsibility, because the world has a stake in the outcome and others should share the burden,” Kerry said in his New York address.
Some analysts, however, say a Kerry victory in November would have little impact on the international community in terms of more direct involvement in Iraq.
“Invading Iraq has created a crisis of historic proportions and if we do not change course, there is the prospect of a war with no end in sight”
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry
“I have seen nothing to suggest that the Europeans would be more willing to get involved with a Kerry administration than with a Bush administration,” Yaphe said.
Although few analysts predict that major European countries such as France and Germany would send troops to Iraq under a Kerry administration, some suggest they might be willing to show support in other areas.
“I don’t see [the Europeans] changing their tune in terms of sending mass numbers of troops, but I see them willing to participate [if Kerry becomes president],” said Peter Singer, a national security fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington thinktank.
The Bush administration did achieve a victory of sorts recently, when NATO allies agreed to deploy a team of 300 instructors to Iraq to train Iraq’s armed forces. France, Germany, Belgium and Spain, however, declined to contribute their own personnel to the group.
Kerry’s interest in early US exit
Some military experts view Kerry’s statements on US troop withdrawals as politically inspired language in a close election battle, saying any credible exit strategy will depend on events in Iraq, not election-year politics in Washington.
“When people start to talk about a period of time then you have to start asking, ‘What is the rationale’,” said Bernard Trainer, a retired Marine Corps general and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “And if there isn’t one, then you have to assume that it’s political gamesmanship.”
If Kerry’s chief motivation for hinting at an early US exit from Iraq is a political one, recent polls suggest such a strategy could backfire if voters feel he might abandon the mission in Iraq before security is established.
In a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 54% of Americans supported keeping US troops in Iraq “until the situation is stabilised”, and 53% said the war was justified.
In addition, a solid majority, 51%, said Bush would do the best job handling Iraq, versus 39% for Kerry.
Bush has been both praised and criticised for pushing a relentlessly upbeat message on Iraq, delivering an address to the United Nations recently in which he said Iraq was on its way to building an “infrastructure of democracy” and becoming a “model for the broader Middle East.”
“I have seen nothing to suggest that the Europeans would be more willing to get involved with a Kerry administration than with a Bush administration”
Just two days earlier, Kerry rejected the president’s assessment of Iraq, citing the administration’s own National Intelligence Estimate which suggested the security situation was getting worse.
“Invading Iraq has created a crisis of historic proportions and if we do not change course, there is the prospect of a war with no end in sight,” Kerry said.
Despite their belief that the US must stay the course in Iraq, only 36% of Americans think Bush has a definitive strategy to end the war, while 55% feel he does not have such a plan, according to the Pew poll.
None the less, Singer said Kerry’s plan to bring all US troops home from Iraq within four years if he is elected is “a very optimistic claim”.