November 01, 2004

U.S. out of Iraq?

I've received more than a few letters about my Mother Jones article on what Kerry could do in Iraq, and the fiercest of them admonished me for assuming that the Democrats should just "stay the course." Fair enough. I do assume Kerry will have to muddle through Iraq for awhile, albeit with minor changes to the Bush policy, and this also seems like the best and most sensible policy to me. But I haven't really explained why withdrawal is such a bad option. In the New York Review of Books, Stanley Hoffman made the case for pulling out. It's not a bad argument, and if Iraq's elected government asks us out—I don't think they will, but they might—then we won't have much choice anyways. But setting that aside, here's why withdrawal is so awful:

1) Force protection. A few military folks have told me that it might not even be possible to withdraw at this point without leaving many, many soldiers defenseless and dead. To understand this, it's important to note that we can't just whisk our soldiers out of the country via quick airlift. We have to slowly draw down our forces, dismantling bases and bringing equipment and whatnot out of the region. All that work requires protection against insurgents. Meanwhile, as the force gets smaller and smaller, it becomes more difficult to protect long supply lines, convoys, and smaller bases. We could quite possibly withdraw to an outpost in Northern Kurdistan or maybe the more stable Basra region, but the chances of a bloodbath ensuing are considerable. Donald Rumsfeld has suggested we could withdraw before there was peace in Iraq, but he hasn't offered anything beyond vague hints in this regard.

**As a sidenote, I have no idea how the draw-down in Vietnam worked, or how that compares to Iraq. All I know is what I've been told, and I've been told that it would be messy.

2) Civil war. A few bloggers (don't remember who) have noted that there's already a civil war going on in Iraq, so how much worse could it get? Well, much worse. Civil war or ethnic violence in Kirkuk or Mosul would make Fallujah look like a neighborhood Nerf-bat tiff. Mosul, for instance, whose security is already rapidly deteriorating, has up to ten times as many people as Fallujah, as well as every single ethnic group under the sun. The U.S. military most likely provides some deterrent against larger-scale violence. The UN (or worse, no peacekeeping force) would not, or not to the same extent. There's a trade-off at issue here, but I tend to think that the violence "caused" by the U.S. presence exceeds the violence that would be "caused" by the U.S.'s absence.

**As a corollary, large-scale violence in Kirkuk or elsewhere could very well prompt foreign intervention—either from Turkey or Iran or Saudi Arabia. (Though the latter, I've recently learned, has a joke of a military force. Where, pray tell, are all those American military credits going?) A U.S. presence, like it or not, acts as a necessary deterrent here.

3) The UN. Hoffman assumes we can just put the occupation under the imprimatur of the UN and call it a day. But why would this pacify the insurgents? Since the interim government certainly cannot defend itself, the UN would need to create a security force, and most of soldiers will inevitable come from the U.S. That in itself is a problem -- not many Iraqis can tell the difference between the two. The U.S. will need to convince Iraqis that the UN is acting neutrally, and not just as a tool of the U.S. Obviously a U.S. withdrawal will convince some Iraqis of that fact, but it probably won't be enough to sway the bulk of insurgents, who can still unite against a blue-helmeted foreign occupier. At any rate, I've never had much faith in the UN as a security/peacekeeping force, and I don't see why it would do a good job here. Better to keep the U.S. in the role of security/peacekeeping (while maybe adding a parallel Muslim peacekeeping force under a UN command structure), while convincing Iraqis—especially the Shiites—that the UN can act as an honest diplomatic broker in, say, the process of drawing up a new constitution. That seems to me a better and more effective role for the UN.

4) The insurgent strongholds. Hoffman also assumes that the UN will be able to negotiate with cities like Fallujah. How? These cities really do need to be dealt with effectively, and some combination of military force and negotiations is probably necessary. Negotiations alone probably won't cut it. On this note, I see the Pentagon is finally drawing up plans for splitting the insurgents by employing various military and diplomatic tools, and while they're coming very late to this line of thinking, it still seems more promising than simply handing over the cities to the insurgents and theocrats (as the British have done in the South). I agree that the U.S. has shamefully placed too much emphasis on bombing and leveling houses thus far, and not enough emphasis on negotiation and diplomacy, but I also think that a UN capitulation strategy would be just as wrong-headed in the opposite direction.

Of those, the two readiest arguments against withdrawal are the lack of force protection, and the fact that any UN peacekeeping force would likely be packed with U.S. soldiers, and hence still a source of resentment. Civil war considerations should not be pushed aside, though obviously if you believe that we eventually need to let the Iraqi factions fight it out—that the country is a "pimple that needs to be popped," as one military official suggested to me—then obviously we should leave as quickly as possible and let the butchery begin. Just don't be surprised when sky-high oil prices buckle the world economy (and they will: we can always adapt, but countries like China cannot) and a new generation of Wahhabi/Salafi/Deobandi jihadists make their mark by razing Karbala, assassinating Shiite leaders, and upending the entire region.
-- Brad Plumer 8:36 AM || ||