Withdrawing from Iraq

2007 03 21
For their own good, again

Let me just point out, once again, that supporters of the occupation who argue that the U.S. should stay to prevent a worse state of affairs want to contradict the will of the vast majority of Iraqis for their own good.

I think it’s important to be very clear about this point when we’re debating the issue of withdrawal. By itself, I don’t think it’s decisive: I wouldn’t want to categorically deny that there could be cases in which we would choose to thwart the nearly unanimous will of a large group of people for their own good. But it surely puts the burden of argument squarely on anyone arguing for continued involvement in Iraq, even if we grant them their optimism about the effects of that involvement. That’s because when we’re dealing with adults, we tend to be very suspicious of paternalism, and when we’re not bigots, we tend to be very suspicious of paternalism displayed towards large groups of foreign adults. So we ought to take Iraqi opinion very seriously, even setting aside the possibility that Iraqis understand what is happening to their society better than we do – a possibility that would give us yet another reason to dismiss optimism about the effects of continuing to defy Iraqis on the occupation of their country.

At any rate, I think chewing on this one also really brings out the neo-colonialist flavour of the whole undertaking. The poor, lost souls need our help, and they’re so backwards they don’t even know it.

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2007 02 03
Iraq plans

Jamie, on the surge:

As I understand it, the latest plan for Baghdad is to split troops into small units and place them in platoon house style setups across the city with Iraqi troops, many of whom are also members of Shi’ite militias. On today’s menu, the US army, disarticulated into tasty bite-sized morsels and spread lovingly on a bed of Baghdad.

That’s coming right up. Peering a bit further into the future, what I’d like to know is: What the hell happens if/when the Iraqi government asks the U.S. to leave? Increasingly, I suspect that a willingness to give the U.S. a really hard time will become a test of credibility, with anyone failing the test accused of being a pro-Yankee stooge. Once the U.S. has been publicly asked to leave, however, it has to choose between backing a coup to ensure a more favourable reception (which loops us back to the credibility issue), getting the hell out semi-voluntarily (still humiliating!), or actually getting forced out, with all that that involves (extra humiliating – supply lines cut, significant casualties, lots of equipment lost, etc. etc. etc.).

These days I’m increasingly leaning toward the view that we may see the last of those scenarios played out, around the time that the U.S. stops being more useful than not to the project of consolidating Shiite power in Iraq. I’m not yet ready, however, to make that an official Explananda prediction.

I’ve noted before that the U.S. debate about leaving Iraq is typified by a remarkable lack of interest in Iraqi opinion polling (though I do recall being wrong about this). A related feature of the Western debate is lack of attention to the fact that the decision to leave Iraq is not entirely up to the U.S. If things aren’t managed properly the U.S. really will have to fight it’s way out. I do hope that it doesn’t come to this.

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2007 02 02
HClinton on Iraq

What she says she’d do:

“If we in Congress don’t end this war before January 2009, as President, I will.”

So how would she do it, if she were president?:

As I’ve said before, I’ve long been for beginning a phased redeployment from Iraq as soon as possible, and I have cosponsored legislation to that effect last year. I think we should begin to get U.S. troops out of Iraq as soon as we can and would urge the administration to do so as expeditiously as possible. I think it is the responsibility of this president to resolve our presence in Iraq before he leaves office. I’ve also, as I said last week, introduced legislation to cap the number of troops in Iraq at pre-escalation levels as of Jan. 1 and require both the Iraqis to meet certain conditions in order to continue funding the Iraqi security forces and to require that the administration meet additional conditions or require a new authorization resolution in order to keep our troops in Iraq. And I believe that that approach, keeping the pressure on both our government and the Iraqi government, trying to cap the troops, trying to get more leverage on the Iraqis to perform the way they have promised, is a comprehensive approach that, if it were pursued in addition to a diplomatic offensive, would be the best way to end our involvement in Iraq in the right fashion.

“Trying to get…the Iraqis to perform the way they have promised”? Are you kidding me? You’re going to place more American lives in the balance in order to get the Iraqis to do what they’ve promised? With both a civil war and a war on the occupiers standing in the way? As Al Gore said to Bill Bradley in a 2000 debate concerning a different issue, That’s not a plan, it’s a magic wand. And it dun’t work that way.

UPDATE: More at Booman Tribune.

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2006 12 10
Foreign policy elites ponder Iraq

The short format of this little forum really doesn’t allow much room for the contributors to develop their ideas. I gather, however, from what little they do say that a more expansive format wouldn’t have helped much. For me, it’s useful mainly as a way of documenting a) how bad a job the NYT opinion page does of representing a real range of foreign policy opinion; b) how truly fucked Iraq and the U.S.’s Iraq policy is now.

I’ve been too busy to take a close look at events or much commentary recently, but in the last week or so I’ve been coming to terms with the likelihood that the U.S. really is going to be forced out of Iraq, in a bloody, chaotic, and humiliating retreat. I hadn’t been able to accept that before. I could see a civil war coming a long way off, but not that the U.S. would be forced into a large-scale retreat. But consider: Any progress will lead to a renewal of larger ambition; any setback will be considered a further reason to dig in and stay. And so it will go until a mass uprising basically blows the whole thing to shit and the U.S. has to fight its way out of the country.

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2006 11 21
For their own good

Matthew Yglesias calls attention to a surprisingly neglected feature (in U.S. contexts, at least) of the debate over the occupation of Iraq: an overwhelming majority of Iraqis want the U.S. out. To be sure, opinion is not uniform – support for a U.S. presence is bound to be higher, for now, among the Kurds, for example. Still, I think that what Iraqis think is rather important here, both in what can be achieved and what it is appropriate to attempt to achieve. I don’t doubt the sincerity of many supporters of the occupation who look at the prospect of an even more violent civil war with horror. But they need to be honest about the fact that they want to force an occupation on Iraqis for their own good. Once again, I am reminded that this is an essentially neo-colonialist project.

Howls of outrage (30)

2006 11 14

I want the U.S. out of Iraq, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t cringe at some of the slogans being used to persuade Americans to see it my way. For example, “Iraq for Iraqis,” which I just saw on a sign today, rubs me the wrong way. Of course Iraq is not currently for the Iraqis, in the sense that Iraqis now face the prospect of having their front door kicked down at any moment by U.S. troops on a raid. But when Iraq is staggering bloodied from one disaster to the next over the coming decade it will also not really be for Iraqis in any meaningful sense. I suppose I balk at anything that minimizes the enormity of what’s been done, and what they’re about to be left to. It’s insulting to pretend that this is about self-determination, as opposed to getting out of the way because at this point nothing can help.

I suppose it’s easy for me to sit back and criticize the selling of political views. Slogans are always rough and imprecise, and what matters mainly is trying to get people to adopt your view of what should be done. But . . . still.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2006 09 18
On the Elasticity Theory of Imperial Ambition

Matthew Yglesias has been doing yeoman’s work beating down various versions of the “Incompetence Dodge,” the idea that it was reasonable to support the Iraq War prior to its initiation because it was impossible to foresee how incredibly incompetently the Bush administration would handle the war. Here’s Andrew Sullivan, for example, taking up one aspect of this view:

The more we find out about the spectacular recklessness of this administration’s conduct of the war the less persuasive it is that this operation was always doomed to failure. In my view, although the war was always going to be extremely difficult, it wasn’t necessarily doomed from the start. It was the administration’s relentless, politicized incompetence that doomed it.

Now suppose that more troops had been sent into Baghdad, and imagine that it had been possible to keep them there. Imagine also that these troops had been instructed to prevent the looting that plagued the country immediately after the war. Imagine further that the Iraq army hadn’t been disbanded, the Sunnis alienated unnecessarily, and so on. In other words, imagine that things had gone much better in the first year of occupation. I submit that the U.S. would still be in trouble today, though Iraq itself might have been a bit better off. An explanation for this is provided by the Elasticity Theory of Imperial Ambition, which, applied to today’s world, states that the imperial ambitions of the Bush administration will always expand to fill the available space. If the first year in Iraq had gone better, the Bush administration’s ambitions for Iraq and the region would have been correspondingly grander, and the consequences just as, or even more, dire, once the backlash caught up to them. The basic problem here is that more wars were in the offing, and very little in the way of real representation for the people being liberated. The Grand Plan here is not one that would have ever worked, and the fact that the Bush administration stumbled on the first, rather than the second or third step, couldn’t change that.

The Elasticity Theory of Imperial Ambition explains why the Incompetence Dodge dodges nothing at all: Less incompetence in Iraq would have just entailed greater encouragement to mess things up later.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2006 08 25
Getting out of Iraq

Upyernoz explains why it would have been wise to announce pull-out dates a long time ago. I understand the arguments against announcing pull-out dates, but I argued for the same position as Upyernoz a long time ago, and nothing since then has changed my mind.

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2005 11 30
Two modest points about a troop drawdown

In the debate about when and how to leave Iraq, I’ve argued that a fixed and publicly announced deadline was best. Critics of a fixed and publicly announced deadline have complained that a fixed deadline wouldn’t allow for contingencies, and that a publicly announced deadline would give hope to insurgents, who would then try to wait out U.S. forces. I think these might be drawbacks to my proposal, but that a fixed and publicly announced deadline would do quite a bit to address serious and credible worries among Iraqis that the U.S. was angling to be a major, and inevitably destructive, player in Iraqi politics a decade from now. If you think that mistrust of U.S. intentions has been an important part of the reason that the U.S. has engaged in Iraqi politics so poorly, then this is really the solution for you.

I notice that the U.S. may now be getting ready to withdraw substantial numbers of troops. I suspect we may begin to see another problem now with the refusal to announce a deadline in advance: Because the U.S. refused to set a clear timetable a year ago, it appeared to everyone at the time to signal a desire to stay in Iraq as long as possible. Now that they’re (seen as) leaving, retreat really does have the disadvantage that retreating U.S. forces look as if they’re being compelled to withdraw, rather than following some fixed plan of their own. If George W. Bush had taken my advice, he wouldn’t be in this pickle. I can only hope that this time he’ll learn, but I doubt it.

Second point: I notice that a lot of hawks are always arguing that retreat shows weakness, which is to be avoided at all costs. Ever notice that the same people are always arguing for advances into untenable positions? If retreat really is so bad, then surely an important part of strategic wisdom will consist in knowing how to avoid the necessity for retreat in the first place.

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2005 10 22
More Fallujas or Withdrawal

I really try hard to convince myself that it’s not that simple. But I think it is.

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2005 09 03
Permanent bases in Iraq

Fafblog has an ingenious solution to the problem of long-term bases in Iraq:

Should we keep permanent bases in Iraq or should we leave the area completely? Why not do both! The compromise: keep our permanent bases, but put up great big pieces a cardboard around em with paintings of permanent bases on em. Then paint signs on the paintings of the permanent bases that say “Ceci n’est pas une permanent base.” That way when Iraqis wander by they’ll just take our militarization of their country as a whimsical statement on the elusive nature of representation.

This would be an improvement on current Bush administration policy, I think.

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2005 08 19
Bradford Plumer makes a case against withdrawal from Iraq

This doesn’t seem right to me, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

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2005 08 18
How Radical

I’m a big fan of Russ Feingold’s, ever since he was the only sentator to vote against the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001–even Wellstone (whose shirt I’m wearing today) voted Yea.

Now Feingold has charged other Democrats with being “too ‘timid’ in challenging the Bush administration’s war policy.” So what is Feingold’s bold suggestion?: GET OUT OF IRAQ![1]

[1]…by Dec. 31, 2006. What do we want?! Justice!! When do we want it?! Sixteen months from now!

Howls of outrage (5)

2005 07 20
Diamond on Iraq

Says Larry Diamond:

If Iraq is going to be stabilized, and if democracy is to have any chance of emerging, the terrorist and insurgent violence must be diminished. As senior American military officers keep insisting, this cannot be done through military and intelligence means alone. It requires political steps as well to widen the circle of Iraqis who have a stake in peace and order, and to take the nationalist steam out of the insurgency.

Four steps are now urgently needed. First, the Bush administration must declare that the United States will not seek permanent military bases in Iraq. Its refusal to do so has aroused Iraqi suspicions that we seek long-term domination of their country. Second, we should declare some sort of time frame (but not a rigid deadline) by which we think we can withdraw militarily�if Iraqi groups that are supporting or tolerating the violence will instead help build the new political order. Third, we need to talk directly to the (largely Sunni) political groups connected to the insurgency, some of which have been seeking to talk to the United States for more than a year now. Fourth, we need an honest broker to help mediate these discussions and build confidence in the process. This role could be played by a small international contact group consisting of a high-level representative of the United Nations and perhaps one or two of the European ambassadors now resident in Baghdad.

Both the terrorist violence and the postwar political mobilization have deepened ethnic tensions and insecurities in Iraq. Ultimately, an inclusive and federal democracy is the best way of containing these tensions. Even if we take the above steps, there is no guarantee that such a viable democracy will emerge in Iraq. However, if we do not depart more sharply from our imperial posture in Iraq, we are doomed to fail.

Good stuff, and all of it together might well produce an occupation I might be able to stomach a bit longer. But what are the chances that the Bush administration will credibly (that is, unambiguously and with real deadlines) forswear long-term military bases in Iraq? And what are the chances that the Bush administration will otherwise cease meddling in harmful ways in Iraqi politics, long-term bases or no? (E.g., covert support for favoured political parties, and if Seymour Hersh is to be believed, also stuff like ballot-stuffing. With Syria and Iran playing the same sorts of covert games in Iraq, it’s not as if the temptation for the U.S. to play them is going to diminish.)

As for the second point, the Bush administration seems dead-set against timetables. I can imagine it breaking down and producing some sort of wishy-washy time-frame, but nothing honest, clear or precise. And here Diamond seems to want it both ways: He says that the time-table should be flexible, but only the clearest and least ambiguous declaration is going to have the sort of political effects he wants.

The administration may well be moving on Diamond’s third point, as odious as it finds such talks.

And the fourth suggestion is unlikely to sit well with the Bush team, unless the group had a symbolic role only, i.e., was useless.

So we have three out of four decent suggestions which simply aren’t going anywhere. Not because they’re impossible, but because the Bush administration would refuse to carry them out, at least in a way that would do some good. Diamond says that if the Bush administration doesn’t depart from its imperial posture it’s doomed to fail. But since it obviously won’t depart from its imperial posture, it seems to me that Diamond ought to be solidly against the occupation. Is he? I’m not sure. But it seems to me that his support for it is clearly conditional, and that all that remains is to make a sober estimate as to whether those conditions are ever likely to be met. The fact that Diamond could run a better occupation than Bush ought not to weigh much with Diamond as he decides whether or not to support Bush’s occupation.

Just as before the war, commentators argued in favour of a war without looking very carefully at the particular war they were likely to get, I’m afraid that many of us – myself included – have argued in favour of the occupation by appealing to the occupation we could have if only the administration were sensible, rather than the occupation we do have, and the occupation we’re likely to have for the foreseeable future. I hope Diamond makes clear in the Slate dialogue that follows that he’s not doing that.

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2005 07 18
Cobban on Iraq

Helena Cobban writes:

What happens inside Iraq after a total US pullback? Firstly, this is really no concern of the US authorities. Secondly, the kind of scaremongering scenarios voiced by many in the US political elite– about a “bloodbath” or “civil war” or whatever– have little credibility. Most of the people mongering these fears are people who have zero knowledge of Iraqi society. But they are exactly the same kind of propaganda as was discussed widely in Israel in the years leading up to that country’s historic May 2000 unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon… And on that occasion, not one of the scaremongery scenarios of bloodbaths, retribution, etc., ended up happening. Also, did I mention that whatever happens in post-withdrawal Iraq, it’s none of Washington’s damn’ business?

With all due respect to Cobban, whom I respect and enjoy reading, this seems to me both a bit too casual and, frankly, a bit too glib. For one thing, it is very much a concern of the US authorities. Much of the responsibility for what goes wrong rests with them, as former occupying powers, and much of the blame will be placed squarely on their shoulders. That doesn’t mean that anything goes, but it does help us to identify a strong US interest in how things turn out.

But, more important, to chalk up concerns about a premature exit to inexperience with Iraq . . . well, I wish I could believe it. I keep trying to imagine exactly how things would play out in the country after the sort of exit Cobban wants. And I can’t do it without imagining significant bloodshed – worse even than anything we’ve seen so far.

If the U.S. leaves, things will probably be very bad, for a long time, and to a certain extent in ways that the U.S. might have prevented. The case for withdrawal needs to face this honestly, and to demonstrate that staying also carries very high costs, and that those costs tip the balance against a continued US presence. Given US intransigence on points that I consider very important, I have been leaning for some time toward a withdrawal in the near to medium term, and a public declaration of a basic time-frame for that withdrawal immediately. But that’s not my main point. My main point is that the debate is really between two truly awful options, and that we shouldn’t pretend otherwise.

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