The Tangible Costs Of Staying The Course

petI think this response by Amb. Ryan Crocker to a question from Sen. Barack Obama captures the sort of studied imprecision that the Bush Administration has used in regard to Iraq from the beginning. Asked for a clear answer on his view of an achievable end goal that would permit an American withdrawal from Iraq, Crocker replied:

Senator… I don’t like to sound like a broken record, but this is hard and this is complicated.

I think that when Iraq gets to the point that it can carry forward its further development without a major commitment of U.S. forces, with still a lot of problems out there but where they and we would have a fair certitude that, again, they can drive it forward themselves without significant danger of having the whole thing slip away from them again, then, clearly, our profile, our presence diminishes markedly.

But that’s not where we are now.

Crocker’s response was essentially a restatement of Donald Rumsfeld’s claim, back in February 2003, that the U.S. would “stay [in Iraq] as long as we needed to…but not one minute longer.” It’s a way to suggest movement toward a clear end goal, without defining what that goal looks like. Simply put, much like the surge itself, it’s a formula for staying and staying in Iraq.

But, as Matt Yglesias notes, a policy of “staying the course” simply assumes “that all potential ills will flow from U.S. military withdrawal and all potential goods will flow from a continued presence.” Specifically, it assumes that a continued U.S. occupation of Iraq will facilitate, rather than frustrate, Iraqi political reconciliation, a less-dependent Iraqi government, less Iranian influence, and greater Iraqi unity.

There is strong evidence of the opposite. In a new article in Foreign Affairs, Steven Simon writes that the surge strategy “may be hastening Iraq’s demise.” Simon notes that this year, the US will hand over more than $150m to Sunni tribal groups in exchange for their cooperation with the US forces against Al Qaeda in Iraq. Simon suggests that weaning these sheiks away from such a lucrative enterprise and toward a much less extravagant Iraqi government, is a looming problem that the surge strategy has simply kicked down the road.

Journalist Nir Rosen noted in a recent report from Iraq that many of these Sunni militiamen refuse to accept the reality of a Shia-dominated Iraq. They are pocketing American paychecks while planning to violently restore Sunni dominance in Iraq once the Americans leave.

Along with the staggering commitment of American blood and treasure, as well as the rise in Iran’s influence and the creation open-source terrorism laboratories, these are the very real costs to staying in Iraq, and they must included in any calculation about our continued deployment there. Unfortunately, neither Petraeus nor Crocker have been willing to do that. As of yesterday, both continued to play the very same word games that this administration has played since the very beginning of this disastrous war.