I’ve had the chance to review the Center for American Progress’ excellent new report on Iraq, Strategic Reset: Reclaiming Control of U.S. Security in the Middle East. It’s a very serious report, though probably one the Very Serious People of the world won’t be too pleased with. By the same token, however, when the Center’s original Strategic Redeployment plan was released in Fall 2005 it was rejected as unserious, only to look prophetic within months. Had their advice been taken back then, or back in spring 2006 when they released Strategic Redeployment 2.0, it might be possible to view less drastic measures as viable today. But mistakes have consequences. For all the joking about Friedman Units, it’s actually true that the U.S. has faced a succession of windows of opportunity in Iraq, and now most of those windows have shut. Realism about the nature of the situation and about American interests requires us, as they argue, to prioritize limiting the regional — and global — damage of the wreckage of the war rather than engage in further fantasies that a clever plan and a renewed emphasis on training can save Iraq.
To say that we have to leave Iraq expeditiously isn’t to deny that bad things may results, but merely to acknowledge that “many events that some fear would result if U.S. troops left Iraq are unfolding now just as the U.S. troops presence is getting larger.” The fundamental dynamic is unfolding according to its own logic, and while the course could change it’s clear that we don’t have any methods at hand to change it. In terms of our moral and humanitarian obligations to Iraqis, CAP suggests we do what we can to address these directly — increasing the number of Iraqi refugees we accept, pressuring regional allies to do the same, and dispersing US personnel and assistance in Iraq away from the central government to promising local actors, if any — rather than trying to fulfill these obligations through a doomed effort to micromanage Iraqi political developments. Similarly, they suggest that the regional fallout from our failure in Iraq be dealt with directly — at the regional level, by returning our military forces to locations where they’re more welcome and easier to sustain, and through diplomacy guided by the reality that none of the major regional players want to see a spreading arc of chaos.
At any rate, read the report for yourself if you’re interested. It’s very good stuff, and something the presidential candidates should embrace instead of these vague formulas about a residual training presence plus force protection to guard the trainers plus god knows what else to make that work. The most important thing, as they note, is that this business of arming and training Iraqi security forces in the absence of a political solution is not just a waste of time and money, but directly counterproductive. Our weapons and funding are fueling civil conflict in the face of deep political fragmentation and there are absolutely no guarantees as to who these arms will be turned against next year or the year after that. “The medicine of more weapons and training for Iraq’s security force may actually end up killing the patient—and will certainly end up killing more Americans, too.” The training concept has become, in my view, a kind of psychological crutch for US elites who don’t want to face their own basic inability to improve things. The idea that you could help resolve an ongoing multifaceted conflict by introducing greater quantities of lethal weaponry and better-trained fighters is absurd on its face. At best, we’re in the position of arming several sides in a multi-pronged civil war in the vague hope that whoever prevails won’t notice we were also arming their adversaries and be loyal to us down the road, which seems like a really, really, really stupid bet.