Reasons To Stay In Iraq

Considering the implications of U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, Robert Kaplan floats the novel argument that, for a progressive national security policy to succeed, it must be more conservative:

The problem is that both Iran and Al Qaeda… are invested in not just an American withdrawal, but a humiliating one at that.

I fear a measurable uptick in violence in Iraq if Obama wins on Tuesday. The uptick will be significant enough to muddy the results of the surge, and the president-elect, rather than respond vigorously, will be tempted to say “I told you so” and thus win the Iraq debate with his Republican critics. The upturn in violence, he will be tempted to argue, only means we need to get out of Iraq even faster.

But that would be a mistake. It would quietly telegraph weakness to our adversaries around the world…The last thing the incoming administration should want is to be seen as retreating in the face of adversity. That would embolden adversaries. […]

Getting out of Iraq is an art, not a science, and it would require Obama to move halfway to the McCain position the moment he is elected.

Interesting that Kaplan admits only that an uptick in violence would “muddy the results of the surge,” rather than admit the more obvious conclusion, which would be that the surge hasn’t worked.


To a significant extent, the whole debate about “the surge” is a function of American domestic politics. This isn’t to say that security hasn’t improved, or that life isn’t better now in Iraq than it was at the height of the sectarian civil war that the U.S. invasion helped facilitate, or that our troops haven’t performed admirably. It is to say that the idea that “the surge” represents anything more than a tourniquet on President Bush’s failed Iraq policy — let alone that it somehow vindicates or rehabilitates that policy — doesn’t have much resonance in places in the world that aren’t the U.S., much less in Iraq, where the war has transformed the country into something that many Iraqis no longer recognize.

As for this idea of not “telegraphing” weakness, I think having the U.S. military tied down in two wars with our soldiers stop-lossed into multiple tours of duty doesn’t “telegraph weakness to our adversaries around the world” as much as it describes those weaknesses in a handwritten letter delivered to their doors. If we’re supposed to wait to withdraw until such time as our enemies won’t point to that withdrawal as an American defeat, then we’ll be waiting a very, very long time.

Which is probably the point. The Washington Times quotes omnipresent expert Michael O’Hanlon warning the Iraqis that they are “are playing with fire.”

“If Iraqis aren’t careful, they will hand Obama a rationale for a premature departure on a golden platter, assuming he wins Tuesday,” he said. “Even a sense of Iraqi ingratitude could be enough to trigger a decision to start marching brigades out at the rate of one to two a month, as promised, early in 2009.”

Understand that O’Hanlon considers “premature” any departure that takes place before his various predictions have come to pass — which is to say “forever” — it seems to me that Obama already has a pretty solid rationale for departure, in that Iraqis themselves have made it abundantly clear that they desire an American departure.


For example, one of the changes that the Iraqi government is now requesting for the status of forces agreement is that it no longer be referred to as a status of forces agreement, but rather as an “Agreement on Complete U.S. Withdrawal From Iraq.” I think this sends a pretty strong signal.

As the Center for American Progress argued as far back as 2005 (pdf), the large and open-ended U.S. military presence creates a disincentive for the Iraqi government, military and police to step up and take ownership of Iraqi security. Rather than coming up with new reasons to stay, policymakers should be focused on ways to use the prospect of U.S. withdrawal to encourage Iraq’s leaders toward reaching a sustainable political accommodation.

As I wrote back in July, no real consensus yet exists among Iraqis as to what the new Iraq will be. Consensus does exist, however, around the belief that no genuine, sustainable Iraqi unity can develop while the Iraqi government continues to be underwritten by a foreign military presence. Recognizing the latter consensus is essential for enabling Iraqis to arrive at the former.