June 29, 2005

The Case For Withdrawal

Matt Yglesias raises a good point about Iraq: Is our goal a stable Iraq in the sense of a central government with more-or-less a monopoly on violence that we can then leave, or is our goal to hunt down and kill every last terrorist in the country? My guess is that the White House's ideal is a stable Iraq with a central government that has more-or-less a monopoly on violence, but also one whose government can and will cooperate with American counterterrorist forces to hunt down al-Qaeda in Iraq, Baathist remnants, and other assorted terrorists in the "Sunni triangle" for years to come. Again, the White House won't tell us, but I'm guessing the broader aim is not so much a large and permanent occupation, but something akin to what Robert Kaplan has called the "supremacy by stealth" model—Iraq would very much resemble Columbia, with a quasi-permanent U.S. "advisory" team and maybe a number of Special Forces units in Iraq. Just a guess.

Meanwhile, over at Tapped, Matt makes the strong case for setting a timetable to withdraw from Iraq as a way to achieve, presumably, a stable Iraq whose government has more-or-less a monopoly on violence. All his points sound reasonable in the abstract, and I can't say with confidence that he's wrong, but here are a few reasons for doubting the timetable strategy.

First, Matt claims that the U.S. presence currently allows "Shiite and Kurdish leaders [to] pursue counterproductive maximalist agendas while counting on the U.S. Army to keep them in power." Well, okay, but they're not pursuing maximalist agendas, really. The leaders compromised on a new government, finally. Ayatollah Sistani is talking about a new district voting system that would give the Sunnis greater electoral representation. The government agreed to a drafting committee with the Sunnis. Talks and negotiations have been rocky, sure, but not nearly as intractable as many expected, and that's how democracy tends to work.

More to the point, that's how it should work: Drafting a constitution and agreeing to government is a tricky business, and far better that all the parties involved take time to hash out the difficult issues now than hastily agree to some unstable power-sharing system thrown together in the hopes of staving off conflict. I can't think of many successful constitutions that have been tossed together in this way. The latter scenario fairly resembles what happened in Angola in 1992—a truce and hastily agreed-upon elections that each side thought it would win—and that led to ten more years of civil war. (Kevin Drum's analogy to the California budget doesn't seem to fit here.) Meanwhile, it's hard to imagine that contentious issues like Kirkuk would get resolved peacefully just because the U.S. wasn't there. The theory that people will happily compromise on issues like resource control and historic lands all because the threat of unchecked war looms is, to say the least, an odd one. Although, in fairness, I don't see how Kirkuk will ever get resolved peacefully, occupation or no.

Matt's next point: "Arab governments acknowledge that a total breakdown in Iraq would be bad for them, but they're reluctant to take action and strong public stances because doing so is unpopular. They'd rather shift the responsibility to the United States." That's a good point, but the question is what, exactly, could they be doing that they're not doing now? Perhaps there's a scenario in which the U.S. starts withdrawing and the other Arab states all pressure Syria to cut off support for its respective insurgents. If, in fact, Bashar Assad can do anything about the Syrian terrorist network, this would be a good thing, but then the question is how big a deal foreign fighters and money are to the insurgency. Meanwhile, whatever benefits flow from greater neighbor involvement need to be weighed against the fact that domestic intelligence against the insurgency would likely dry up. It seems likely that you'd see far fewer native Iraqis willing to snitch on Zarqawi and the rest if the U.S. was on its way out—as seemed to be the case with the British in Aden. Finally, it's worth noting that one of the biggest sources of insecurity, the rampant organized and unorganized crime, will almost certainly increase, and increase dramtically, without the Army around. (Although I've seen more than one analyst note that, right now, the military just doesn't have the troops to handle this particular problem anyway.)

Then there's the John Derbyshire/William Saletan argument that if the U.S. would just set a timetable for withdrawing it would somehow "concentrate" the minds of those Iraqi troops-in-training, break the culture of dependency, and motivate them to shape up in a hurry. Eh, wasn't that the idea behind "Vietnamization"—that if the ARVN were forced to fend for themselves, they would take responsibility for themselves? It's a point that sounds really quite enticing in the abstract, but it's a lot to gamble on. That's why if we do draw down, I think we'll probably have to modify our goals and aim for "managed anarchy" and rule by roving militias rather than a stable Iraq whose central government has a monopoly on violence.

The big asymmetry here, meanwhile, is that of the two gambles—keeping troops indefinitely and setting a timetable for withdrawal—the "stay the course" option seems reversible, at least in theory, if things aren't going well around, say, fall of 2006. If the U.S. starts withdrawing and all hell breaks loose, I imagine it will be virtually impossible to send troops back, which could look very, very bad come midterm election time. That factor, I think, will make all the difference for the White House.
-- Brad Plumer 3:44 PM || ||