The idea is seductive to the left. Bring the troops home from Iraq in dignified retreat, patting ourselves on the back that we did the best we could while that country explodes in sectarian conflict. Bravely, we take the blame before the world, say three our fathers, three hail Mary’s, and go about the business of turning America into a bastion of democratic socialism.
The only problem is, it isn’t even remotely possible:
These are unpleasant realities for a nation that prefers all of its solutions to be simple and short. The reality is, however, that even if the US does withdraw from Iraq, it cannot disengage from it. The US will have to be deeply involved in trying to influence events in Iraq indefinitely into the future, regardless of whether it does so from the inside or the outside. It will face major risks and military problems regardless of the approach it takes, and it will face continuing strategic, political, and moral challenges.
Anthony Cordesman went to Iraq recently. His travelling companions were none other than Michael Oâ€™Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack - the Brookings Boys whose Op-Ed in the New York Times entitled “We Maybe Could Be, Just Might Possibly, Conceivably, Perchance Win This Thing (Depending On The Breaks)” was touted as “proof” that not only was the surge working (a fact confirmed by even some of the most jaundiced observers of Iraq who have come back from there recently) but that its success could lead to “sustainable stability” in Iraq and a sort of “victory.”
Now there’s a rallying cry for you; “Remember Sustainable Stability!” Or perhaps “Onward to Sustainable Stability!”
At any rate, Cordesman is one of those hard eyed military men who works for think tanks as kind of the “Warmonger in Residence.” He doesn’t have quite the take on the Iraqi situation that O’Hanlon and Pollack brought back. In fact, it is quite a bit more pessimistic (which is bringing huge sighs of relief to some on the left this morning)
From my perspective, the US now has only uncertain, high risk options in Iraq. It cannot dictate Iraqâ€™s future, only influence it, and this presents serious problems at a time when the Iraqi political process has failed to move forward in reaching either a new consensus or some form of peaceful coexistence. It is Iraqis that will shape Iraq’s ability or inability to rise above its current sectarian and ethnic conflicts, to redefine Iraq’s politics and methods of governance, establish some level of stability and security, and move towards a path of economic recovery and development. So far, Iraqâ€™s national government has failed to act at the rate necessary to move the country forward or give American military action political meaning.
If I were an anti-war lefty, I’d hold off on embracing this report too vigorously. Yes, it may offer some counterpoints to the O’Hanlon-Pollack piece. But you’re not going to like this:
The US has some 160,000 military personnel in Iraq and a matching or greater number of civilians and contractors. It has between 140,000 and 200,000 metric tons of valuable equipment and supplies, and some 15,000-20,000 military vehicles and major weapons. It is dispersed in many of Iraqi’s cities and now in many forward operating bases.
This does not mean that the US cannot leave quickly. It can rush out quickly by destroying or abandoning much of its supplies and equipment, and simply removing its personnel and contractors (and some unknown amount of Iraqis who bet their lives and families on a continued US effort). The more equipment and facilities (and Iraqis) it destroys or abandons, the quicker it can move. Under these conditions, the US could rush out in as little as a few weeks and no more than a few months.
A secure withdrawal that removed all US stocks and equipment and phased out US bases, however, would take some 9-12 months or longer [estimates of this vary but if it was 10,000 military plus 10,000 civilians and all equipment each month in Kuwait, that would likely take 16 months minimum; 2 years is what many military experts think would be a rapid, but deliberate pace].
So if, as many of you propose, we leave Iraq in 90 days, it would be Saigon, 1975 times ten. Not only military stocks but what becomes of the $20 billion in aid projects? Or the new US embassy being built there?
And for many of the rest of you liberals, what does this information do to your carefully thought out and “practical” redeployment of troops under the Democratic plan in Congress? You know, the one where we’re out by March, 2008?
And for all my conservative friends who talk blithely of “victory” as if there is any strategy or tactics we can employ that will change the perception out there in the world that Iraq is nothing short of a defeat for the US, Cordesman has this:
It is important to note in this regard that while Americans are still concerned with finding ways to define â€œvictoryâ€ in Iraq, virtually the entire world already perceives the US as having decisively lost. Every international opinion poll that measures international popular reactions to the US performance in the war â€“ Oxford Analytica, Pew, ABC/BBC/ARD/USA Today, Gallup, etc. â€“ sees the US as responsible for a war it cannot justify and which has caused immense Iraqi suffering. Virtually every internal poll of Iraqi opinion with any credibility — Oxford Analytica, ABC/BBC/ARD/USA Today, ORB, etc. â€“ has produced similar results.
The US probably cannot entirely reverse these attitudes in Iraq, the region, allied states, and increasingly in America. It may well, however, be able to greatly ameliorate them over time. It seems likely that the US will ultimately be judged far more by how it leaves Iraq, and what it leaves behind, than how it entered Iraq. The global political image of the US â€“ and its ability to use both â€œhardâ€ and â€œsoftâ€ power in other areas in the future, depends on what the US does now even more than on what it has done in the past.
What you are advocating - even though noble and desired by all patriots - is simply not possible.
Time to rethink Iraq - for BOTH sides.
The situation cries out for a bi-partisan solution between Congress and the White House. In order for that to happen BOTH sides have to recognize that neither of them can achieve their goals. The Democratic left is not going to be able to cut and run from Iraq. The Republican right is not going to be able to stay indefinitely, endlessly engaged in a struggle against ghosts.
(Parenthetically, Middle East and military expert Doug Hanson, speaking on my radio show yesterday, put the number of insurgents and potential insurgents in Iraq at “several hundred thousand.” These are former Saddam loyalists who were placed where they are and given instructions just for this kind of scenario happening in Iraq today. What is blood boiling about this number is US intelligence has known since 2005 that we are facing hundreds of thousands of fighters and potential fighters while Rumsfeld was assuring Congress there weren’t more than 20,-25,000.
We can’t kill them all.)
We can’t leave precipitously and we can’t stay forever. What’s the solution? The situation doesn’t lend itself to the easy talking points of either side which is why both my right and left leaning readers and commenters will not be pleased. Believe me, I’d love to write a post on Iraq just once where only one side gave me hell. But the times and situation in Iraq demand a little bit more out of all of us.
The only way out of Iraq that least harms our national security interests (interests made very plain and spelled out in English by Cordesman in his report) and that would leave Iraq with a chance at peace is together. And after we leave, the hard part begins. Staying engaged also would demand a bi-partisan consensus with the acknowledgement by both sides that there may be certain circumstances where we would have to send troops back into Iraq to save it from external threats or other disasters.
Cordesman’s report forms the basis for a long term commitment to Iraq and its people. Do we have the political will to make it happen?
I can dream, can’t I?