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Kahl: Conditionality Is Not Hubris

Colin Kahl offered some thoughts in response to my take on his latest op-ed:

It’s not hubris to advocate conditionality — it’s pragmatism. There have been genuine security gains over the past year, and there is some chance of a soft landing that would be good for Iraqi and U.S. interests. Conditionality is not a cure all, and our influence is diminishing. But as we begin to draw down in 2009 we should be using every ounce of our remaining leverage at the strategic (presidential) and tactical levels–which, despite Maliki’s rhetoric, remain considerable–to push for a few political deals on Sons of Iraq integration, elections, and Kirkuk that would consolidate security gains (or at least minimize the prospects of backsliding).

Simply taking a hands off approach to Maliki et al. as we draw down won’t change things and it would almost certainly increase the risks that the withdrawal and its aftermath will be messy and chaotic. Hubris is staying forever OR leaving unconditionally and just hoping that things will work out. They won’t. Pragmatism is trying to play a bad hand well.

Well rather than going back and forth on exactly what’s hubris here, let me say that my main doubts about the wisdom of conditionality isn’t about the extent of our leverage it’s about our ability to know what we’re doing. All throughout the many different iterations of our approach to occupying Iraq, the one thing we’ve been consistently unable to do is micromanage Iraqi internal politics in a satisfactory way. The policy community in Washington always remains steadfastly sure that we’re the manipulators rather than the manipulated even though there’s really no way to tell. Meanwhile, the continued presence of large levels of US forces in Iraq, whether conditional or not, encourages different Iraqi factions to make their relationship with us their primary concern rather than their relationship with each other.

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I’m not sure it makes sense to talk about “playing a bad hand well” at this point. Our hand seems okay to me. The lives and money and opportunity that have been wasted in Iraq have already been wasted. But Saddam is gone and a new government is in place, and that new government is — in the form of its repeated timetable requests — offering us a decent and honorable way out that would allow us to refocus our energy and efforts on other problems around the world. We’ve lost a lot of previous hands but our current hand is fine and the smart way to play it is to seize the opportunity to leave Iraq with a handshake and pat on the back rather than desperately hanging on until the situation becomes totally untenable.