The anti-war crowd has been saying for years that it is possible, indeed necessary, for the United States to simply walk away from Iraq by systematically drawing down its forces without regard to the security of the Iraqi government or people.
Also for years, I have been saying that despite monumental blunders and stupidities committed by our side, that such a scenario just wasn’t a viable option unless we could be assured of leaving behind some kind of stable government that at the very least, couldn’t be hijacked by al-Qaeda and made into a base of operations that would threaten us and our friends around the world.
I still believe that to be a viable, sensible, logical position to hold – but just barely. Once again, I feel myself “stretching” to defend a position that even just a few days ago I felt quite comfortable with.
Almost a year ago, I responded to my critics who accused me of changing my mind about Iraq by writing a post that tried to show how events can undercut long held assumptions and present you with the choice of being dishonest about how you truly feel by stretching your logic and reason in order to have your beliefs comport with your original assumptions or change the underlying assumptions on which you base your beliefs in order to reflect a new reality:
One by one, assumptions I had formed at the beginning of the war and occupation fell victim to changing realities in Iraq. This is not the same place it was 4 years ago nor is it even the same as it was a year ago. And if it has changed – if the facts, perceptions, and reality has changed, what did that do to the underlying justification for my opinions?
Once I began “reaching” to justify my opinions, I got very uncomfortable. The threads of logic became more tenuous the more I examined those pesky assumptions. I realized that many (not all) of my original assumptions were basically obsolete, done in by the cruel logic of domestic politics and a growing realization that the the US military could do everything that was asked of it and more and still come up short thanks to the balking politicians in Iraq, the twisted narrative of the war being spun by the left and the Democrats, Administration failures to implement a strategy that would win the war, and a growing belief that the country was sliding out of control.
So if you’re in my shoes, what do you do? Continue to defend a position you know is becoming untenable as a result of changing realities (and new information not available at the time you formed your original assumptions)? Or do you alter your assumptions and change your opinion?
Until I got on the internet, I always believed it was the mark of a thoughtful man to constantly challenge one’s beliefs and adjust them if necessary to the changing realities of the world. This is how I went from believing in liberalism to thinking like a conservative. There came a time after college graduation where liberal dogma refused to stand the test of rigorous self-examination and I gravitated toward a much more conservative worldview. Within that conservative framework, I have altered my opinions many times regarding many issues. For instance, I am much more conservative on immigration than I was even just a few years ago while I have perhaps moderated my views on issues like affirmative action and minority set asides.
Those are small examples but telling. Think about it. What kind of idiot – right or left – would maintain a mindless belief on an issue even after the original assumptions on which they based that conviction have been superseded by events or a different set of facts?
The situation in Iraq at the moment is quite fluid and not beyond repair. A return to some kind of status quo albeit with a weakened Maliki and suddenly ascendant al-Sadr is possible. But I think that some of those underlying assumptions about Iraq that I held just a week ago have proven themselves to be changing – and not for the better.
1. It was always an assumption that the Iraqi militias would have to be destroyed or neutralized in order for peace and security to come to Iraq.
But 6 days of fighting in Basra shows that Iraqi army incapable of doing either. And any political solution regarding the militias would necessarily put them on the police force or in the army where their loyalties would always be suspect.
2. It has been an assumption from the beginning that the Iraqi army was capable of “standing up” without American assistance so that we could safely draw down our forces.
I don’t believe the Iraqi army did that badly in Basra. There are enough credible reports that they stood up to some pretty vicious assaults by the Mehdis and may, in some instances, have been facing an enemy with superior arms including heavy weapons not in their arsenal. What is clear is that the spin on this battle has been incredible. Reports of “defections” by the army to the Mehdis have been wildly exaggerated while every temporary setback by the Iraqi army was given glowing coverage.
But their performance was nevertheless disappointing. Their inability to make much headway against the Mehdi in most neighborhoods and their reliance on American and British air power shows that they still have a long way to go before they can handle internal security for the country much less beat off an invading army from Iran or Syria.
How much more training can we give them? My military friends who read this site will no doubt tell me that it is a very difficult task to build an army from scratch and that leadership on the battlefield is a difficult commodity to recognize and encourage. I will buy that notion but will also point out that there is a political clock ticking here at home and performances like that shown in Basra by the Iraqi army do not engender confidence that they can “stand up” before time runs out and Congress (or a new president) pulls the plug.
3. It has been an assumption that Malki could unite the country despite dragging his heels on reconciliation measures.
This is one that has been slipping away for months. In fact, Maliki is proving to be not a uniter but a divider, interested in pursuing power for his coalition at the expense of other Shia parties and the Sunni minority. This was certainly a large part of the rationale he used for entering Basra in the first place. And in the end, it may be his undoing.
4. It has been an assumption that al-Sadr must die.
Mookie may have become too large a player in Iraqi politics to take him out. He and his party have become the “agents of change” in the south where precious little has been done with regards to reconstruction of basic services like electricity and sewage. His power in the national government may be small but the power of the national government is nothing to shake a stick at. If nothing else, he has become a powerful regional actor who both the US and Maliki must now deal with. His ties to Iran notwithstanding, perhaps it is time to if not embrace him, at least stop trying to kill him and the Mehdi. In other words, turn a huge negative into a slightly net positive.
5. It has been an assumption that the Kurdish north is not a big problem and that we can allow the Iraqis to deal with security in that area.
This is definitely one of those assumptions that is changing. Al-Qaeda has made its presence known in Mosul and Kirkuk while a low intensity conflict between Shias and Kurds for control of the vital oil center of Kirkuk has been going on for almost a year. Is there anything the US can reasonably be expected to do to alter that situation?
6. It has been an assumption that the US must stay in Iraq in order to kill the remnants of al-Qaeda.
This is probably the strongest argument for maintaining a large combat force in Iraq. But the Sunni militias have proven that they are very effective in securing their neighborhoods against al-Qaeda attacks while also rooting out terrorist cells on their own. Will we soon get to a point where the Sunnis can “stand up” so we can “stand down?”
These are just a few of the underlying assumptions about Iraq that most reasonable people, I believe, would have to say are in flux at the moment. Does this mean I believe we should walk away from Iraq? Not at this point. But unless some of these basic assumptions about our role as occupier and friend of Iraq can be changed for the better, I can certainly envision a day where such a course of action would become self-evident.