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June 13, 2005

The Iraq debate we need
Posted by Derek Chollet

Having spent the weekend in Canada watching some very fast cars drive around a track, all the while imbibing my fair share of Canada’s finest, my head remains a little foggy for the finer details and nuances of debating America’s national security. 

Which I guess is one reason why I’m focused on the big picture. I flew home yesterday morning to find this article blaring across the right-hand column of the USA Today about the new Gallup poll showing support for the Iraq War at an all-time low, and most Americans wanting us to get out in some form, if not altogether.

Reading this poll got me to thinking: three summers ago, we had a huge debate in this country over what to do about Iraq – and this debate was highly emotional and deeply contentious (and, we now know, highly flawed because of some very bad intelligence – even those of us who believe that we weren’t lied to about Iraq’s WMD, but were just plain wrong, see that).  What happened three years ago remains very hot to this day, as illustrated by all the attention being paid to the series of British government memos being leaked to the press, especially the so-called Downing Street memo.    

What’s disturbing to me is that here we are in 2005, with 150,000 troops on the ground in combat and no end in sight, and the main subject of debate, especially in progressive circles, remains the same.  It’s not what we do about Iraq now, but what happened in 2002.  By my reading, nothing in these memos is much of a surprise – the Bush team was determined to take action against Saddam (and in the opinion of some British officials, regardless of what the intelligence showed), and it was not planning adequately for where we are today, the so-called post-conflict phase.   I’m not saying that what happened during this period is unimportant – very emphatically, it is important, which is one reason why, as others have pointed out, there should be more outrage about the Senate Intelligence Committee’s decision not to conduct “phase two” of its Iraq report into how policymakers used or misused the intelligence on Iraqi WMD they were provided. 

But historians can and will debate the events of the summer and fall of 2002 for many years to come.  It seems to me that for us, what matters most right now is the history yet to unfold: what we are going to do about Iraq today and moving forward.  That’s the Iraq debate we need. 

It makes sense why many policy types in Washington – especially internationalist progressives – have steered away from this discussion since last year’s election.  Politically, it seems like a loser.  And there are no easy answers -- as the old policy adage goes, we’re forced to choose the least bad option.  The proposals we tout – better training for Iraqi troops, more allies involved – are hardly quick fixes.  These are the very reasons we need a debate about it: because moving forward is not going to be easy, it will continue to involve sacrifices, and it will still make a lot of people unhappy.

A big part of the problem is that we really don’t have any idea what we are trying to accomplish in Iraq, other than generalities like “build democracy” or “provide security.”  A plan isn’t much good if you don’t know exactly what you want to do, or how you can define success.  We have to answer the very simple question that most Americans are asking: what needs to happen in Iraq so that our troops can come home?  And then we have to answer the obvious follow-up: when will this start happening?

As a sign of how badly we need a new debate, consider Jim Hoagland’s column in the Washington Post last Sunday.  For many years, Hoagland has been a consistent advocate for removing Saddam from power, and believes that we did the right thing.  But he is taking stock of the recent polls, and this is what he has to say:

“The cost-benefit analysis [of the Iraq War] -- the ‘How are we doing?’ question -- can be rewritten in a short time by changing circumstances and the information and perceptions the changes generate. But the character question of ‘What are we doing’ demands answers and judgments that rapidly get set in concrete. The next important tipping point may not be in Iraq but in the United States.

“It is not just the surge of violence in both conflicts in the past month that is shaking support for Bush. It is also the growing concern of middle-of-the-road Americans that they cannot trust the information they are being given by the administration -- and particularly by the Pentagon -- about the conduct and progress of these wars…

“…the White House is too quick to find comfort in the ignorant partisanship of some foes and the partisan ignorance of others -- and in the reality that patience is required in all wars and particularly in one as amorphous and demanding as this struggle has become.

“All of that is true, but it is not the whole story. Patience in times of hardship and danger has to be earned by leadership, by candor and by demonstrated accountability and responsibility at the top. A poll may be nothing more than a snapshot, but it can show us things about ourselves we need to see.”

Earning patience by demonstrating leadership, candor, and accountability.  Great idea.  Since Bush shows no signs of doing so, we should.   


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What you get out of this is not only the actions of the Administration (fixing the intelligence: Bolton anyone?) but the absolute lack of coverage by the memo-scared MSM (boy, Rather-Gate really did castrate many of them---ironic with the w... [Read More]


If you really want to show that you're serious, you might want to take a call for debate on the most important foreign policy/national security question facing America today out of the "Potpourri" category. ;-)

Would someone please explain why so many people outside of the US think this memo is a big deal?

"A poll may be nothing more than a snapshot, but it can show us things about ourselves we need to see."

wrong! . . .a poll can give us what data we want if we pay enough money to get it.

I rarely agree with what gets posted here, so I figured I would comment when I did. On the matter of why everyone's still focused on 2002, there's a bloc, I don't know how large, of people who cling to the fantastical notion that Bush is impeachable. I think that's all there is to that. Crowing about the media's reluctance to cover it is a bit quixotic. I mean, we did have the man in charge of terrorism tell us exactly this over a year ago.

As for the debate, let's do it. My two cents: we're fucked and preventing further instability is a rationale for continued insanity.

"Would someone please explain why so many people outside of the US think this memo is a big deal?"

well, for one thing if the memo is kept in high profile, perhaps no idiot will attempt to nominate george the younger for a nobel...

"(The debate is) not what we do about Iraq now, but what happened in 2002"

That's cause we progressives have a solution: get out of Iraq.

I can already anticipate your snide answer "that's not a serious suggestion."

As others have noted, maybe the fools who got suckered into this war shouldn't go around telling others they are "unserious."

From what one can glean from various sources the goal is to turn Iraq over to the Iraqi's and the strategy is to train enough Iraqi's to be able to do that with secondary strategies involving economic and political development. It's obviously going to take around 2 years, at least according to Sen Biden.

The administration deserves all the blame and scorn one desires for lacking a realistic post-war plan and for taking far too long for creating one; moreover, they have not gotten enough worldwide support for this plan nor have they clearly explained it to the American people.

All this aside there is, however, nothing to debate regarding policy as we are locked into this. One might debate how to implement it faster. What might be a good idea is to "debate" what happens if this plan fails. Frex, the French and others might feel good about saying I told you so but long term it's not going to be pretty for anyone. Iran, who had about a 9% turnout in the last sham election and Syria (no democratic movement) seem to have the largest stake in supporting the insurgency and according to some members of congress the CIA is unwilling to acknowledge this in public. Perhaps we should debate what preasure we might bring to bear in these two cases.


Derek has posed the right question -- what is it that sensible policymakers can do to salvage what can be salvaged from the wreckage of Washington's Iraq policy, and get the US military out of the country before the military's own capabilities are mortally degraded?

We should not shrink, though, from continuing to examine how the high-speed train hurtled to war in 2002-03, with its engineers and accomplices blithely by-passing every red signal -- the reports of U.N. weapons inspectors, 10 million people in the streets in the US and worldwide opposing war, the rejection of Washington's case for war by the overwhelming majority of Security Council countries, the calls after the war (even by the British) to put war-shattered Iraq under a United Nations transitional administration. All of these were cautionary signals of a quagmire to come in which we would flail, and sink, all by our lonesome selves.

Was Washington's insistence on installing an American occupation regime the trigger unleashing an ineradicable insurgency? If we don't understand what happened in 2003, even as we debate what we can salvage now, Americans may be led anew into more misguided and deadly adventures.

That was a pretty good Formula 1 race. Schumacher made a pretty good run near the end for the lead, but didn't have enough time in the end.


"All this aside there is, however, nothing to debate regarding policy as we are locked into this."

I agree that an immediate U.S. departure would be bad all round. But we cannot allow matters to drift and I see three options.

The first option would be to ask the Arab League to assume the burden of security in the Sunni triangle if the non-foreign Sunni insurgents agree to lay down their arms. The Sunni Arabs could then join the government with an Arab League presence to protect them.

The second option would be a gradual coalition withdrawal. This option could begin if the Arab League doesn't agree to a presence in western Iraq (or if the non-foreign Sunni insurgents reject it) and if a permanent constitution takes effect without the Sunnis. A gradual coalition withdrawal would increase the danger of a civil war without immediately precipitating one. The Sunni Arabs cannot win a civil war and the prospect of one might be the inducement necessary to get them to join the central government.

The third option would be to partition the country into three regions. Areas of mixed population could suffer if there are violent displacements as in India 1947-48. But for the Shias partition might be preferable to a violent subjugation of the Sunni triangle that would continue to be resisted by insurgents based in nearby Arab countries. The partition would be followed by our withdrawal.

It should be noted that the outcome in Iraq cannot be disentangled from the nuclear dispute with Iran. If the United States gets into a confrontation with Iran, then conditions in Iraq could very quickly change.

David I fundamentally do not understand your position. Is the goal to stabilize a situation we have a legal and moral duty to implement or simply to get out?

That aside has the Arab League shown the slightest indication they would even consider doing anything in Iraq? Why not use the phrase UN or NATO for that matter instead of Arab League for that matter as all are equally implausable.

Partition is not an option for us to impose. There is now an Iraqi Goverment in power. This aside the drawbacks of partition are myriad.

On a practical level we are training Iraqi's to protect and provide security for their own democratic nation. There are now more Iraqi's doing this than coalition forces. The administration is 100% locked into this policy. The only realistic option is to make it work better and faster.

Lane Brody


Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I am not clear exactly what legal obligations we have in Iraq that are not sui generis, but you may know more about this than I do and I would be grateful for any clarification.

Morally we have an obligation to match ends with means. Ends and means are not in alignment at the present time. Our current policy is to align them by helping a democratic unitary Iraqi state build the necessary forces to exercise effective jurisdiction over the country as a whole. But I am sure you would agree that a moral obligation to help cannot be endless.

There have been reports of Iraqi army battalions that stand their ground and the number of these may be growing along with (at a slower pace) the police. But other reports suggest that it will be many years before Iraq is able to stand on its own. If there is steady progress over the next year or two, our present policy will be vindicated. But if progress is very slow or nonexistent, then I think it is legitimate to raise the question of whether to scale back our ends.

The three options I proposed are fallback positions.

(1) My suggestion that the Arab League take a role in western Iraq might reassure the Sunni Arabs that an Iraqi army will not be turned against them should there be a crisis in civil-military relations. I freely concede that the other Arab states may not agree to such a role. But the Sunni Arabs in Iraq might accept a unitary Iraq if there is an outside Sunni Arab peacekeeping force to protect them. A UN force drawn from Arab countries might accomplish the same purpose but I think the Arab League should be asked first, to learn whether it is willing to defend an Arab democracy.

(2) A gradual unilateral US withdrawal should only be undertaken if there is clear evidence that Iraqis are not meeting their responsibilities in a timely way. There is no excuse for soldiers who join an army and who after being properly trained and equipped refuse to fight. I think it is fair to give Iraqi forces time to gain experience but it is not fair to our dead and wounded if the people we are trying to help refuse to assume the burden of combat in a timely manner.

(3) Partition should not be our first choice in Iraq and I agree that it is not for us to impose. But if Iraq faces indefinite insurgency or full-scale civil war, I am only suggesting that partition might be preferable and that how we choose to deploy our forces is for us to decide and not Iraq.

The question in Iraq is how much time we should allow for a democratic government to assume full responsibility for its ground security. Setting any kind of timetable risks encouraging the enemy to wait us out, but a realistic timetable could also spur the Iraqis we support to speed up taking responsibility.

I do not think there is anything moral about staying a course in which means and ends are out of alignment on an indefinite basis. Either the means must go up or the ends must come down. We should give a democratic Iraq a chance to strengthen the means to achieve a unitary democratic state. But if this is not possible in a reasonable period of time, then we have an obligation to explore other outcomes.

Two notes to my post above.

First, an outside peacekeeping force in the Sunni triangle would not work unless ex-Baathists and other non-foreign insurgents lay down their arms as part of a deal. If they do not, then no sensible country would or should offer troops for a peacekeeping force.

Second, the responsibility of the Iraqis may be qualified by the fact that so many of them are intimidated by insurgent threats against themselves and their families. This intimidation seems related to the fact that in the last two years we have not had enough of our own troops to maintain security in the places we have cleared of insurgents. This is our fault, not the fault of Iraqis.

Nevertheless, I don't think this difficulty (or Iraqi inexperience with insurgency) can entirely explain the low level of Iraqi morale. Iraqis fought bravely against Iran for nine years, although it is true that Saddam Hussein threatened them with execution if they did not. If Iraqis cannot be inspired to fight for a unitary state without such a threat, then there isn't much time to find a more realistic goal for them. Support for the war in Congress is starting to crumble and a year from now it may collapse.

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