June 25, 2005

Dreaming of Withdrawal

Stygius is probably very right about this: the tide of polls turning sour on Bush and Iraq probably doesn't mean there's some widespread clamor for withdrawal. What it most likely means—insofar as you can translate polls into preferences—is that a lot of Americans really, deep down, want the president or some other authority figure to sit down with them, explain what needs to be done in Iraq—see, for example, Kris Alexander's charts and graphs on this—along with what our military experts think can be done in Iraq, and readjust our priorities if the latter doesn't quite stack up with the former. If a stable, democratic Iraq isn't an achievable goal, then perhaps it's time to proceed to our Afghanization phase. Certainly that's what I'd like someone to explain. On the other hand, I'm not sure anyone in the Bush administration "really" knows what they'd like to achieve—do they plan on keeping bases there indefinitely?, for instance—and there's something quaint and naïve about asking the president to level with us.

One other major problem is that "military leaders" don't even seem to agree on what can physically be done in Iraq. The commander-in-chief thinks all is blossoms and roses. Gen. John Abizaid and Gen. George Casey sound more sober about the insurgency, but admit it will cost a lot of "blood and treasure" to win this thing. And then you have Lt. Gen. John Vines insisting that we need to draw down "relatively soon." Who's right? The top generals may know a lot, but it's not obvious that they know better than the officers lower down, and they might even be wrong. So who's right? No idea. The point is that there doesn't seem to be a "correct" appraisal of Iraq that we could somehow all see clearly if only our leaders would level with us.

Now as it stands, I'm tentatively against what seems to be the Democratic idea of setting a deadline for withdrawal, in part because I do think Iraq would go to hell if we left before certain goals are accomplished (but what are those goals?), and in part because I don't quite buy the argument that announcing withdrawal would "scare" the newly-elected Iraqi government into sweet, sweet compromise rather than engaging in the furious bits of brinksmanship they've been engaging in thus far. That seems wrong. Yes, true, the negotiations between the Sunnis and Shiites have been ugly at times, and will continue to be ugly—hey, they're ugly here in America too—but they haven't been intractable. I don't see how announcing our withdrawal would magically speed things and get a constitution pounded out. More to the point, I'm not sure a series of rapid and hasty compromises by the Shiites, made under the threat of a U.S. withdrawal, will lead to a stable Iraq down the road.

Meanwhile, it seems true that the training of Iraqi security forces needs to be done right and can't be done on a timetable—five to ten years seems to be the timeframe usually given. And I'm also not quite sure the Iraqi government would gain any newfound legitimacy from not having the United States around, or by having the U.S. announce a deadline for departure. Perhaps they'd gain legitimacy among the Sunnis. But then perhaps many Sunnis would hate a Shiite-led government no matter what. At any rate, PM Ibrahim Jaafari seems to be threading the needle here by begging the U.S. to stay in private and pricking against the occupation in public. So that seems to be the trend for the time being; we're in for at least two more years of the same. Still, so long as we insist on staying until the "job is done," without any sort of forceful timetable, it's not unrealistic to think that we're looking at an open-ended occupation that's trying to achieve impossible goals, an occupation that will last until the Army breaks apart. Which is why Daniel Byman's idea of a targeted drawdown, along with narrowing our objectives to pursue some form of "managed anarchy" in Iraq—i.e. avoiding large-scale civil war, deterring a coup, making sure the oil supply isn't disrupted, and preventing Afghanistan-style terrorist camps from forming—might end up being the least bad of a menu of very bad options.
-- Brad Plumer 3:52 PM || ||