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Bad Odds

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"Bad Odds"

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George Packer’s latest article on Iraq comes as close as anything I’ve seen from the “the Iraq War is terrible but we have a moral obligation to continue occupying the country indefinitely against the will of the Iraqi people” crowd to dealing with the basic problem that their proposed solutions are unlikely to work:

Toby Dodge admitted that anyone arguing against immediate withdrawal has to face the “killer question: Why should American troops continue to die when the chances for success are so low?” He offered his answer “with an honest recognition that it doesn’t sound very plausible.”

Now wait for the answer, and note that Dodge is right, it really doesn’t sound plausible:

Dodge’s approach would bring the maximum pressure to bear on Iraqi politicians by persuading the region and the world—Iraq’s neighbors, the European Union, the United Nations—to come into the Green Zone, not as tools of American policy but as equal partners in an effort to force a political deal, not unlike the U.N.’s role in creating a government in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. This would imply an American confession of failure. Instead of pursuing more ambitious goals for democracy in the region, the U.S. would offer security guarantees to Iran and Syria in exchange for coöperation. “We then turn to the Iraqi government,” Dodge went on, “and say, ‘You’ve got to reform your government, make it more inclusive, less corrupt, more coherent, less sectarian.’ So the Iraqi government is reconstituted within a multilateral framework where the E.U., the U.N., and the U.S. are all singing from the same hymnbook.”

What I don’t understand is why Packer and Dodge don’t draw the obvious conclusion — it’s not a good idea to do something incredibly costly like staying in Iraq for many additional years on the basis of a not very plausible plan that’s unlikely to succeed. Instead, we get this:

For Dodge, the only reason to give this long-shot strategy a chance is the awfulness of the alternative. “I wouldn’t bet the house on it succeeding,” he said. “But I would bet my hopes and fears for Iraq on it.”

A costly, likely to fail strategy, however, isn’t an alternative to failure. Most likely, your likely to fail non-plausible strategy is just going to fail. And if Dodge wouldn’t “bet the house” on his plan succeeding, then what are we supposed to say to the National Guardsman whose family is going to lose its house if he’s injured in Iraq and can’t work anymore? If Dodge won’t “bet the house” on his plan, then why should our troops risk their lives for it? I couldn’t possibly imagine looking someone heading off to war in the eye and giving him this account of why his service is vital and necessary.

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