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October 06, 2005

Stay, but change the course
Posted by Morton H. Halperin

Bush's speech yesterday (see Heather's first impressions) shows that he still does not get it, but neither do many of the critics of his Iraq policy. 

The fact that there were terrorist attacks before we invaded Iraq does not mean that the war was justified or was a useful step in the struggle against al-Qaeda.  But we are there now and Saddam is gone. Bush is correct in warning that if we completely and quickly withdraw, there is a danger that some or all of Iraq will come under the control of a group that allows al-Qaeda to operate as it did in Afghanistan.

However - and here is where Bush gets it wrong again - maintaining current troop levels and the current strategy are not helping.  Indeed, by staying the course, we are making it more likely, not less, that a regime sympathetic to terrorists will come to power in part of Iraq.

It is hard to imagine that Baathists (who I believe are leading the indigenous insurgency) would be able to take power again in all of Iraq.  The Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south should be able to hold on to their territory.  However, the center of the country, including Baghdad, could easily become a Baathist stronghold again or come to be ruled by a Sunni-dominated regime which would provide safe haven to al-Qaeda.

If Iraq split into three parts it would lead to the worst of all possible outcomes. In the south we would have a regime dominated by radical Shiites.  Such a regime could well cooperate with Iran even if it would not become an Iranian satellite and could support those committed to terrorism against Israel and work actively against a Middle East Peace settlement.

In the north, an independent Kurdistan would likely provoke a civil war between the Kurds and whoever controlled the middle of the country in a battle over Kirkuk and its oil fields.  That battle could easily become an international war as Turkey and Syria intervene to prevent the formation of an independent Kurdistan which would be a safe haven for their Kurds.

And in the center of Iraq would be either a failed state or one that tolerated and encouraged the settling of terrorist training camps.

There is now agreement among many progressives and much of the American military that our current force posture and military strategy in Iraq is doing more harm than good and that the Army cannot sustain it in any case (see October 5 Wall Street Journal article, "As Bush Pledges to Stay in Iraq, Military Talks Up Smaller Force").  My colleagues at the Center for American Progress have advocated a "strategic redeployment" of U.S. forces to relieve the burden on the military and enhance our ability to confront threats to U.S. national security not just in Iraq, but also around the world.   

Yet I see no reasonable prospect that indigenous military forces can prevent the potential terrible outcomes from becoming reality and I fear that it is far too late to bring in other foreign forces, although we should try.  Therefore I differ with many progressives in believing that we need to keep a significant force in Iraq for some extended period of time to prevent Iraq from becoming a divided, foreign-controlled failed state that serves as a hotbed of regional violence. 

That is why we need to keep a significant number of troops, perhaps 50,000, in Iraq for the foreseeable future.  These troops would have a much smaller footprint and would not engage in offensive operations.   They would continue to train and support Iraqi military and police forces and prevent the establishment of terrorist training camps or a radical government in Baghdad.  By their mere presence they would reduce the chances for terrible outcomes.

At the same time we need to launch a sustained effort to bring other countries into the process and to internationalize the efforts.  We should do this in two ways.  First, we need to go back to the UN Security Council and try to get the resolution that we should have gotten right after the Mission Accomplished speech. We should ask the UN to take charge of the international community's role in the political process in Iraq and we should get out of the way.  Whether we succeed in that effort or not,  we need to engage Iraq's neighbors in an effort to prevent these terrible outcomes. Our ability to bully Iran and Syria is gone and we need to deal with them in the kind of contact group which worked in Afghanistan. 

The best we can hope for is some greater international cooperation, over time perhaps some troops from Muslim countries, and a very imperfect political process in Iraq with continued violence; but that would be a lot better than where we are headed or where we would be if we withdraw all of our troops any time soon.

It was a tragic mistake to go into Iraq and it has made the struggle with al-Qaeda far harder, but that does not mean that Bush is wrong when he warns of the consequences of our complete withdrawal any time soon.  I see no choice but to change the course and stay.


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While I'll take issue with a number of Mort's points (great to see him blogging -- who said you can't teach an old dog new tricks?), a glaring misperception throws off all his exit formulas and smacks of Sunni Arab establishmentarianism (which sucks and is borderline racist). His assumption that "If Iraq split into three parts it would lead to the worst of all possible outcomes" reveals how the Democrats will really be no better at solving the Iraq mess than BushPig Inc, though they might not be as arrogant and brutish.

Far from heralding disaster, Iraq's partition would indeed be the best possible outcome, certainly as far as withdrawing US troops is concerned. First, who gives a flying fuck if Iraqi Shiastan aligns itself with Iran? While some of the current Shia parties (SCIRI most obvious) are willing tools of an Iranian political clique, Sistani commands more respect among Shia on both sides of the border than any two-bit Iranian ayatollah. Iraqi Shia tend to look down their noses at their bretheren in Iran, and it ain't realistic to believe for one minute that they'll bend over and let some raving bearded freaks steer them by the butthole. The Iraqi Shia will also have more oil than they'll know what to do with once they get their shit together. They'll also want to forge their own foreign policy, rather than have BushPig Inc. hounding them. Why would they submit to Iran? Also, Mort, why toe the same line on Iran as the neocon scum? What ME peace process exactly are they derailing anyway? And maybe if the US backed off and engaged in some constructive casheesh, they'd call off the Hezbullah dogs.

You should also know better not to swallow the line about the Kurds falling out among themselves and the Turks and Syrians(?!?) rushing into the breach. (Iranians more likely than Syrians, but not very in any event). Kurdish fratricide only breaks out when the money runs dry. The Kurds are rolling in dough at this point, and they're definitely prepared to split Kirkuk 50-50 rather then killing thousands so the Barzanis and Talabanis can add a couple extra Ferrari's to their warehouses. Please don't fall into the tired old colonial racism that was responsible for Iraq's borders in the first place. And, in case you hadn't noticed, Turkish businesses are thriving in Iraqi Kurdistan and many Turks now believe it's better to have pro-Western, market driven, greedy-ass Kurdish warlords in control than anarchy. The Turks are full of hot racist air and even their criminal pashas wouldn't care to occupy N. Iraq which would be a sure recipe for militant separatism, guerrilla war and the end of EU dreams.

As for US disengagement, the US could withdraw all its troops tomorrow and noone would notice shit. Their presence is completely irrelevent at this point everywhere but the Sunni heartland, where they are probably doing more harm than good. (Not to mention that these troops are totally committing war crimes, Mort). They could certainly be reduced to 50,000 if it helped get the Dems elected, but if the GOP does it tomorrow, who will that help in 2006? It's a horrible thought, but maybe our kids are dying over there so Hillary Cliton can be elected.

Sure it would be great if the UN takes more control, but who in their right mind would want to inherit what the US has wrought in Mesopotamia? And while the thought of Muslim troops entering Baghdad is appealing, the only way that will happen is if George Soros buys booze and hookers for each and every one every single day they're keeping the peace (And air conditioners. And ipods.)(Hey, maybe that would jump start the Iraqi economy)

In the end, Mort offers little or nothing that will change the situation in Iraq for the better or even change the image of the US in the world. Why keep 50,000? The fucking private contractors will do the work anyway if we leave. The training of Iraqi forces has gone really well by the way. The only fit troops are those in Kurdish and Shia militias and the former Republican Guard types who are the lynchpin of the insurgency. The Iraqi people themselves will take care of the foreign Qaeda scum if we step out and leave them with some dignity and some cheese.

Here's my solution. First, skin Rummy, Doug Feith and the CEO of Halliburton alive on network TV to show the world we are serious about changing our policies. Second, withdraw all but 10,000 troops who'll be kept in Baghdad only as a rapid reaction force to prevent genocide. Third, warn the Turks and Iranians that if they send troops into Iraq, we'll drop cluster bombs, napalm and radioactive cat piss on 'em. (Contact group? Does that mean they get together with us for touchy-feely CBMs?) Fourth, let the Kurds and Shia set up their own countries or whatever the fuck they want to call them. Fifth, do some creative population transfers to homogenize most areas. Sixth, encourage the UN to run Baghdad and Mosul for the time being as these are the most problematic spots. Give Kirkuk to the Kurds but threaten to seize their leaderships' assests if they resort to ethnic cleansing (a shit load liess in real estate in the DC metro area). Finally, fix the oil industry and make it transparent. Don't forget the Revenue Watch program you're running, Mort. Wouldn't the Iraqi people be best served if the US helped get the oil money into their communities

It's sad that people like Mort Halperin, who is a hell of a nice guy, can't be more creative and think "outside the box" on Iraq. The criminals who brought so much death and suffering must also be brought to justice, and the sooner we are gone from Iraq and can step back and comprehend what they have done, the sooner we can see them gang raped in a Federal prison.

Mr. Halperin,

My impression is that we are simply past the point of no return as far as the break-up of Iraq goes. It is happening, now, and we can’t stop it. So rather than cover the dissolution with a blanket condemnation as the “worst of all possible outcomes”, we should begin to reflect on the fact that, of the many different ways Iraq could resolve itself into separate political communities, some are distinctly worse than others. We need practical proposals for helping to bring about a stable situation in Iraq; for limiting the extent of ethnic cleansing; for settling territorial disputes, for helping each community achieve effective government; for deterring foreign intervention; for preventing the accession to power of Salafist militants in Western Anbar province; and for bringing some order and predictability to the economy – especially the oil economy.

I see no reason to think the Kurds, who can now vividly taste of autonomy, have any inclination at all to remain attached to the rest of Iraq for any significant period of time. What exactly is in it for them? Their current strategy of working within the constitutional framework is an instrumental one, pursued as a very short-term temporary arrangement. The situation in Kirkuk is indeed worrisome. But the ethnic cleansing is already happening. How do you propose we stop it? Ultimately we are going to have to face the issue of exactly what our policy is toward the Kurdish effort to “Kurdify” parts of northern Iraq? Are we going to passively support it? Are we going to oppose it? How? We need to start addressing these questions now.

We also have to shake off our denial about the fact that the Sunni Arab region of Iraq is eventually going to have some sort of government of its own, and begin to think about what kinds of government could emerge, and what we or others can to influence the outcome. Maybe it will be a Taliban-like Salafist nutocracy; maybe it will be a neo-Baathist government; maybe it will be a more traditional Arab government by sheikhs. The last one seems best to me, but if the choice comes down to Baathists vs. Islamist wingnuts, I choose Baathists.

The majority of Iraqis are Shiites. Whether Iraq breaks apart, or remains whole, they are going to be the dominant political power in the Iraq region for some time. To worry at this point about the fact that a lot of Shiites have an affinity for their Shiite coreligionists in Iran, and for the Iranian government, is to engage in futile regrets about water under the bridge. Maybe we should have thought about that before we smashed the Sunni Baathist state that was oppressing the Shiites and preventing them from following their natural inclinations. Too late now.

Hello Mort. You might be interested to know that your plan would probably be acceptable to many of the Sunni hardliners, who, according to the Foreign Policy article, are more reasonable than we've been led to believe.

...there is a danger that some or all of Iraq will come under the control of a group that allows al-Qaeda to operate as it did in Afghanistan.

How would this work exactly? Al-Qaeda couldn't even take over Ramadi, and were driven out when they tried to ethnically cleanse the Shiites who lived there. If "it's hard to imagine" the Baathists taking over Iraq, how much more unlikely would it be that a small group of foreigners -- who hate the Shiites, the Baathists, and the secular Kurds -- would be able to take control?

But suppose they do take over. The Taliban had Pakistan for a sugar daddy. What neighbor would support an Al-Qaeda gov't in Iraq? Syria? Iran? Zarqawi wants to overthrow both regimes. An Al-Qaeda gov't would be completely isolated, and every country in the region would work to get rid of them, if only for their own self-preservation.

So please. Let's stop scaring ourselves with these highly unlikely scenarios.

Why should one single more innocent person die while imperial wonks struggle to can the most pithy sound bites? Here's one: Stop murdering children.
How can you seek to control something you don't even begin to understand? It is impossible for any American who has not lived and breathed all aspects of Iraq for their entire life to comprehend, let alone dictate, order to the chaos that has been rendered. Hence the application of brute force.
Here's another slogan for you fools: Arrogance, ingnorance and incompentence do not a civil society make.
Why aren't you folks at DA more cynical? Hell, you know the system, but why buy into it?

Captain Morgan, it's unfair to blame Halperin for not thinking his way out of the box. We're stuck firmly in a box that thinking isn't going to get us out of.

Ths situation is mostly out of our control. Our options have come down to bribery and military action, and both have limited effect.

A year ago people started saying there were no good outcomes available, that we had no good choices. Now it's reached the point we have no acceptable choices. If we pull our military out it will be open season on our "contractors" and we'll tend to lose the bribery option too. Officially our contractors are above all law, they can't be tried under US law or iraqi law or military law, and if they deeply offend soldiers by shooting at them or something the most that's supposed to happen is they have to leave iraq. But unless the US military is there to enforce it, they *will* be subject to whatever passes for iraqi law.

So if we pull out we take pot luck for results. The results might likely be much better than Halperin thinks. They might even be better than you think. But we get no control and precious little influence. And that's unacceptable.

But we don't have the troops to stay in iraq in numbers sufficient to coerce the iraqis. We could keep a symbolic presence of 50,000 men who don't attack anybody. They would be basicly hostages. If they stayed in sufficiently well-guarded defensive positions they wouldn't take many casualties. Particularly if we airdropped their supplies, or maybe kept them only in bases big enough to have their own airfields. What good would they do, compared to renting places in egypt (or even jordan) to train iraqi soldiers? Well, they would give us the chance to change our minds. If we pull out completely and then want to move large numbers of US soldiers back into iraq, we'd probably have to do an amphibious assault. I doubt our allies kuwait, SA, jordan, or turkey would let us invade through them. If we keep large bases then if we want to we can airlift a great big invasion force onto them and invade iraq from the bases. And it wouldn't *seem* quite like an invasion since we'd never completely left. But wait, there's a second thing that keeping 50,000 troops in iraq would do for us. It would make us feel like we haven't given up. If we pull out completely it will feel like a defeat. Pulling out all but 50,000 doesn't feel as much like a defeat. But it would be. It's unacceptable, and people are trying to accept it as the best of a bad lot.

What about calling in the UN? The UN would be willing to come in and clean up after us, it's their job to clean up after people who make messes. They'd jeer at us a lot, and we'd hate that, but they'd take over. It would be a US defeat. When we discussed letting the UN in before, we asked where the troops could come from. Europe can't provide enough to matter. Last time we thought nobody could do it but us. However, the UN could scrape up sufficient troops. China has plenty. India has plenty, and India has some arabic translators. Egypt has sufficient arabic-speaking troops if somebody can pay their expenses. So does indonesia. The trouble is it's unacceptable to us to send in sunni or chinese troops. Any way the UN did it would highlight the US defeat. We might get the satisfaction of seeing the chinese etc fail too....

Your 8 points are mostly good ones, the trouble is that most of them are now out of our hands. Skinning Rumsfeld etc is a good first step. 10,000 troops to resolve ethnic conflicts? Didn't we learn anything from somalia? Airstrikes are practically our only remaining threat and we might as well try the threat where it can do some good, but the good it can do is pretty limited. Everything after that, you're proposing things we can suggest to the iraqi government. We recognised their sovereignty, and we don't get to make those decisions any more.

Except one -- your idea about encouraging iraqis to move and avoid violent ethnic cleansing is a good one. We can encourage them to do that by giving them money to do it. We can give shia and sunnis money to move out of Kirkuk. We can give sunnis money to move out of places in the south where they're in danger, and give shia money to move out of places in the west where they're in danger. Some of the wrong people would take the money, people who would be welcome where they are but who just want the money. There would be some waste to it, but we could probably reduce the violence a good deal. Poor people who'd have nothing if they got evacuated with what they could carry, could get a stake to start out somewhere new.

But mostly we're stuck. All our choices are unacceptable, and we're stuck trying to accept the least-unacceptable of them even though it's obviously wrong. Note Halperin's wording. "By their mere presence they would reduce the chances for terrible outcomes." He couldn't think of any way to win so he had to just hope they'd have some magical effect.

My only suggestion would be to ask all our military officers in iraq plus contractors and embassy staff -- anybody who's on the spot and knows *something* about what's going on -- to write up their ideas and send them in to some large group who would screen them -- throw out the obvious things we've all heard before and try to sort the rest. Maybe the guys who're there have some out-of-the-box thinking that would be useful. I don't think I can think my way out of the box from what I see in the US and foreign media.

But make no mistake -- we're in a box. Every now and then people repeat the slogan "There is no substitute for victory.". What we're looking for here is a substitute for defeat. Leaving 50,000 (or 10,000) troops behind in iraq is only an attempt to pretend that we haven't lost, that we haven't been driven out of iraq.

Changing course in the sense of a phased drawdown, as circumstances permit, and staying in smaller numbers for the forseeable future, is exactly what we will do in Iraq, rhetoric on the right notwithstanding, cynicism on the left be damned, evolution of the political situation in Iraq permitting.

There are intense ironies at work that few seem to notice. The more al-Qaeda seeks to sow the seeds of civil war in Iraq by mass killings of children, schoolteachers, Shia pilgrims, doctors, nurses, and families buying vegetables, the more likely it becomes that the victimized will band together, enlist in the police and army, and work to avoid an all out civil war. The more likely it becomes that an elected government in Iraq will accommodate a US-led occupation. Al-Qaeda is its own worst enemy.

The more the Galloways and Sheehans in the US, UK, Australia, Japan, Italy, and so forth clamor for a quick and total withdrawal of the coalition from Iraq, the less political space the governments of said countries have to make even partial withdrawals.

The Zawahiri memo is comforting in a way. The goals al-Qaeda sets for itself in Iraq are totally unrealistic and self-delusional. The only choice they give us is to kill them off like cockroaches. For a liberal like myself, I couldn't be angrier. I can think of ten thousand ways to better employ resources, energy, and political oxygen in the next couple of decades than to hunt these animals down and kill them off.

As for the Baathist remnants, it must be the Kurds and the emerging Shia leadership that take the initiative in terms of national reconciliation. Not us. But what makes us confident that there are no grapes of wrath yet to be tread?

It is likely that Iraq, like Afghanistan and Lebanon, will stagger forward, slipping back into near chaos from time to time, in the next few years amidst innumerable dangers and difficulties, surrounded by neighbors with an eye to exploiting the difficulties for their own ends.

US-led efforts have made it possible for Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon to be freed of tyranny in order to shoulder the incredibly hard work of forging democracy. At the same time, progress towards the creation of a Palestinian state staggers forward at a snail's pace. Lybia has dismantled its WMD program. Pakistan acts far more often in the interests of peace than it has in the recent past. Iran's options are in fact very limited, unless it chooses to ignore its own interests entirely. These specific instances are all cases of the glass being far less than even half full. Yet that marks significant progress.

JohnFH, if it turns out that we can draw down the troops with no terrible consequences, that would be quite a reilef!

I agree that Zarqawi has totally alienated the shia and hasn't done much to get sunnis behind him. If sunnis help break up his teams that will aid the reconciliation, just as it would have if white southerners had killed off the KKK in the southern USA. My only real concern here is that iraqis might come to believe that Zarqawi etc are a US black op designed to make them hate jihadists and foreigners and sunnis, and if that happened it would backfire and they'd tend to band together against us.

Anyway, I hope it turns out you're right. If we succeed in drawing down the troops and good things happen in iraq that we can take credit for, that would be the ideal outcome. And it isn't impossible!

Let's all pray for it. And wish for it. Our praying and wishing can't do any harm, and maybe it will help.

The idea that the UN is going to help is a big fat joke. The UN abandoned Iraq after it was attacked once. Could anyone name a single nation that has even hinted it would send substantial numbers of troops to Iraq but has not except for the lack of political cover provided by a UN resolution?

The UN does not have a single soldier. Iraq is going to sink or swim based on it's own political and security situation. There is no UN to come help Iraq there are only those nations who wish to. Not for nothing but there are reports of Arab special forces operating in support of both Iraq and Afganistan but for obvious internal political considerations it's not being reported.

In case anyone missed it the US invaded Iraq and has a duty to help them. If after two and a half years of insurgency 1,500 US combat deaths is enough to drive us out of Iraq through lack of political support then we deserve another major terrorist attack.

Bin Laden, in part, felt secure attacking the US because after seeing the US retreat from Lebanon and Somalia and doing nothing after Kobar Towers and the East Africa embassy bombings he concluded the US lacked the will to respond. Whatever the circumstances if the Arab World percieves we retreated from Iraq it's a long term disaster for us. That is reality and the UN is not going to help in any way whatsoever- or maybe you'd like to go to Darfur and take a poll.

Lane Brody

Lane, we have to draw down the forces because we don't have the resources to keep them there in large numbers.

We haven't been able to win with 130,000 men or 150,000 men, can we win with 50,000? If the arab world perceives we got driven out of iraq, if our reduced force actually suffers significant casualties before we pull them out, that would be even worse than us appearing to lack the will to respond.

Our will can change in a day. Pearl harbor showed that. But if they see our army getting beaten that's something that takes longer to turn around.

We can't afford a slow drawdown of troops unless our forces in iraq stay *safe*. But is it plausible that they would be safe?

Even worse, with only 50,000 troops we couldn't keep the media out. They'd tour insurgent-controlled areas and spread their propaganda. If the insurgents were reasonably smart about it and the only places that were unsafe for journalists were close to the coalition troops, that would look real bad.

First let me comment on Mort's piece.

Two things.
1. I applaud Mort's recognition of our need to remain in Iraq. I also feel, as I have said in past posts, that there is a threat to American's way of life, should we just pack up and leave. Where I feel we differ is that I strongly beleive Bush sees the threat as economical, while Mort is supporting Bush's lip service of the threat being military.

If this was purely militarily, I'd be with the get out now group. We face a much lesser threat if we are not seen as the largest present pest.

We are there for oil intrests. It's been our sole concern since it impacts every world citizen. It keeps Bush's type in power, and we will not leave until the threat of supply cut off is gone. That's the true threat, and it would be worse for us then losing a city or two.


Acknowledging the first problem, what should we do to help? Will more troops secure the oil better? Can we reduce the threat of China, Russia, Iran, Kurd, Shia, and Sunni to such an extent that we can reduce our forces and still have access to cheap oil?

I have proposed an internal U.S. effort, to start energy independance via a national MagLev train network, Pebble Bed modular reactors, and cheap mass driver space propulsion. These would primarily reduce and eventually eliminate our need for crude oil and thus Middle East presence of any sort. Secondarily and more important, there would be potential to create a U.S. energy capacity, that would exeed our present need; something that hasn't been so for nearly 35 years.

Thirdly, once we lead others will follow, and a slew of related problems will be tackled. I've tried leaving this to peoples imaginations, and haven't gotten anywhere, so I'll mention a few I see.

1. Cheap space exploration, because we'll have mass drivers, not fuel based means of hurling objects into orbit. We'll be able to exploit Martian and Lunar mineral resources, hurl payloads to earth, and send them to the surface on a low friction trajectory Burt Rutan style. We'll be able to hurl radioactive waste into orbit, and out into space.
2. War for energy will cease. I won't dare to say that all war will end, but we will have no need to stay in the middle east.
3. More work than you can shake a stick at. An economic boom the likes of which haven't exsisted since the age of exploration.

Can this line of reasoning get traction?

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