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October 09, 2005

Getting Real on America's Role in Iraq
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

Here's the thing:  its well and good to talk about what might, could conceivably or even should happen by way of U.S. policy in Iraq.  But, based on the last 2 years of hard experience, we know full well that such discussions bear little or no relation to what will happen under the stewardship of this Administration. 

So, in debating whether the US should stay or go we need to know whether we're talking about a hypothetical US government, or the people in charge today, because the answer may be different.

To illustrate:

- Contact Group - Several of the most cogent argument's in favor of significant troop reductions short of full withdrawal - including Mort Halperin's here, the Center for American Progress' here, and Joe Biden's here - all refer to the need to convene a kind of "contact group" comprised of Iraq's neighbors - Syria, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others - to assume common responsibility for promoting a stable Iraq.  They talk about this as a way we can drawdown American troops while minimizing the risk of Iraq becoming a failed state.  The problem is that this idea has been around since at least June of 2004.  The Administration hasn't done it yet, and I don't think any among us believe that they will.

- Internationalization - Many of the same proposals also talk about the need to further internationalize the Iraq operation:  expand the UN's role; get others to contribute troops.  This has been in discussion since before we invaded Iraq, and the Administration's never made it happen.   Their failure to internationalize at the get-go has become increasing debilitating over time as deteriorating conditions on the ground have made the UN and everyone else unwilling to put substantial personnel at risk.  Most analysts confess that internationalization is all but impossible at this point.  I don't think anyone believes the current Administration can or will make it happen.

- Iraqification - This is a somewhat different point, in that I don't know the degree to which the US Administration is to blame for the slow progress in rebuilding the Iraqi military.  But any realistic assessment needs to take account of where that effort stands.  At that conference I mentioned a very senior ex-government official described the training of the Iraqi military as a joke.  The latest Pentagon briefing by General Petraeus reveals that just one Iraqi battalion (down from 3) is thus far capable of operating entirely independently of coalition forces.  Petraeus does not venture how long it may take for any additional forces to reach that level.  So, to be realistic, let's just say that the Iraqi military won't be ready to stand on its own within the next 2 - 3 years.

The question the American people faces is given the above - an Administration that can't or won't multilateralize the stabilization effort, that can't or won't internationalize the Iraq operation, and that can't successfully Iraqify it - are we best off remaining in Iraq in current numbers, drawing down, or pulling out.   

Progressives can and should put forward how we would handle things differently, but we also need to think through what ought to happen next given who is in charge.

That's why I come around to thinking more seriously about a pull-out.  I continue to believe that the consequences of Iraq becoming a failed state will be grievous for the Iraqi people, for the region and for the US, and that we must do everything possible to avoid that outcome.  I also believe that a military force with US leadership could, if handled properly from the outset, have played a role in helping prevent Iraq from spiraling downward.   I even believe that the right set of measures now might conceivably help correct the course.

But I don't believe that our current mission can hold Iraq together, and I have waning faith in this Administration's will or ability to make it more effective:  there's no more sign of a strategy than there was months ago; there's no sign we better understand the insurgency or how to fight it; there's no sign of progress in the 3 areas noted above; the support of the American people is dwindling; and the military is voicing its own doubts about Iraq's future. 

To say that the US should remain there under these circumstances - when we know that the preconditions for possible success aren't and won't be met - seems to put US lives and even the structure of the US military at risk with virtually no chance of achieving our objectives.   

Under these circumstances, its questionable whether a substantial drawdown of American troops - leaving 50-75,000 in Iraq through the end of 2006, will work better:  will the training effort go better with fewer US troops to carry out the job? (CAP argues it just might in that Iraq's military would then take ownership of the nation's security) will the insurgents give us partial credit for a partial withdrawal, say from urban areas (as CAP suggests), or just rebouble their efforts to force the US out entirely? 

It's not that I disagree with CAP or with Mort, I just think we need to examine whether - in isolation - the portions of their proposals that deal with troop levels going forward still stand in view of the unlikelihood that the accompanying measures they recommend will actually be taken. 

It reminds me of the mistake progressives made en route to Iraq: saying that assuming the Administration did a list of things they had no intention of doing (letting WMD inspections run their course, building a coalition, shoring up support in the UNSC), progressives would support the war.  All anyone heard was the last 3 words, and when the prerequisites predictably failed to materialize, Kerry and others were stuck in the position of supporting something they knew would be disastrous.


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And what if a democratic Iraq understood as a fait accompli is just around the corner? There are signs that hint at this (changes in attitude within parts of the insurgency, the initiatives of the Arab League, the continued commitment of the UN and the US to the political process, intervening whenever necessary to keep things moving forward). Once such a change in perception takes place, it will change everything, even if the facts on the ground change little over the short term.

It will take years and years for the insurgency to play itself out, and Iraq may never be able to go it alone against the insurgents. Think Colombia. But really, the outcome in Colombia is not in doubt. The same is not true in Iraq. But it may be within a year or two. Time is working in favor of the majority of Iraqis who are opting for the democratic process as opposed to pure thugocracy or delusional dreams of a caliphate.

The momentum of the insurgency, and I hate to agree with Cheney on this, but he's right, is diminishing. Particularly in the arena that counts the most, which is the political arena.

As far as I can see, Suzanne's post is based on unrealistic assumptions. The process of multilateralization and internationalization staggers forward in fits and starts. It could hardly be otherwise, given the states in question and the interests they have. The process of Iraqification also proceeds in fits and starts. Under the circumstances, it is going as well as could be expected. To expect more and then to chide this administration for acheiving less is not a convincing approach.

It is realistic to expect that the current administration will both stay the course and change it as little as possible. But it does NOT follow that progressives will position themselves well by arguing for a pullout now. In effect, that is betting on the failure of the process currently in midcourse in Iraq and more generally in the Middle East. Given this administration's incompetence, that might seem a fair bet. It is not.

The outcome of the process in course doesn't depend on our competence or lack thereof. It depends on the Iraqis themselves. They will need our help, perhaps for a long time to come. But fundamentally, their future is in their own hands. I do not have faith that this administration, or the next administration, will get it right in Iraq. I do have faith that the Iraqis themselves will pull it off.

Under the circumstances, the Iraqis are doing remarkably well. This counts for more than most navel-gazing Americans seem to appreciate.

Excuse my unfashionable optimism. Time will tell, will it not?

This isn't the choice we could actually make but....

Suppose the choice was to either have 50,000 US troops in iraq for as long as the iraqi government wants them, or

Give the iraqi government $3 billion a month for 5 years.

Which would benefit the iraqi government more?

Which would the iraqi government choose, if they got a choice?

How much good is the US military actually doing in iraq? Could that money be better spent?

I'd like to take a momemnt to briefly address some of Suzanne's commentary.

First, the Contact Group Idea. All of Iraq's neighbors, especially Syria, Iran, and Turkey, have their own vested interest in seeing the progression or repression of a specific sect or ethnic group present in Iraq (i.e. the Kurds, the Shia, the Sunni). Iraq has been searching for an identity even before it recieved the name currently imposed upon it after WWI.
To expect that any of these contries would act out of a a benevolent interest is quite illogical. Moreover, the fact that Iraq has fought against external influences since well before the domination of the Ottoman empire does not suggest the Contact Group route as a viable, partial or complete, solution.

Second, the concept of internationalization. This goal, whether guided originally by want or need, has always been pursued by the US. As all are well aware, countries have and will continue to dangle that carrot in front of us in order to achieve their own interests. We currently have about 28 nations who support the rebuilding in Iraq in various ways. Though some may accord blame to those who have put us in this situation, the same shadow cannot be cast on the efforts we have enlisted to find help in rebuilding Iraq. The frequent excuse used by the UN and other nations is that the situation is too volatile and dangerous to initiate operations. Insurgents know to continually target that perception in order to keep international support low.

Third, the concept of Iraqification. While there are some who find it easy to assess and deride the situation from the remote catacombs of DC, a view from the ground illstrates the seemingly impossible task at hand. The training of the Iraqi military and security forces is certainly not a joke. One cannot create an army or police force within a politically dictated timeline, at least one that will have the ability to carry out its directed mission.

Lastly, I would encourage a non-partisan approach to a solution. A assessment based in reality leaves one with the conclusion that the achievement of success in such a historically fractured and disillusioned country could not necessarily have been better handled through a different administration, who would have been bound by the same political realities.

The fact is, there is no easy solution to the predicament we are currently in. But the fact remains that the legacy we leave will bind all Americans, not merely a specific political administration. We as Americans are used to fast-food war and peace. We want it now, and look to complain to the manager if we can't get that. The complexities and realities of this effort we are engaged in cannot be succinctly wrapped in a PR package to seel to John and Jane Q Public. However, the daunting reality is that we need to do exaclty that if we are to remain decisively engaged in this effort, and supported by the public.

Thank you Suzanne.

I would only point out that, before the war, Middle East analysts from the State Dep't, the CIA, and Kroll Inter'l said this was almost certainly a hopeless task.

There's no doubt we could have done better, but if the Shiites want to vote for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution, and the Kurds want their own state (including Kirkuk), and a large # of Sunnis actually believe that they are the majority, then a competent occupation isn't going to give you a functioning democracy.

It's as simple as that.

"I would encourage a non-partisan approach to a solution."

Nice joke! This war was started for partisan political purposes, and it very much helped get Republicans control of Congress and get Bush re-elected. If Democrats support it for nonpartisan reasons they'll get their heads handed to them. They walk sideways back to back these days, any slip into bipartianship gets them back-stabbed by Republicans.

If Democrats don't treat this as a strictly partisan issue, if they fail to treat this as a totally Republican failure, they deserve exactly what the Republicans will do to them for it.

"A assessment based in reality leaves one with the conclusion that the achievement of success in such a historically fractured and disillusioned country could not necessarily have been better handled through a different administration, ..."

Yes, even an administration that didn't expect it to be a cakewalk would have had trouble. A better administration wouldn't have punched that tarbaby in the first place.

"The fact is, there is no easy solution to the predicament we are currently in."

The easy solution is to vote against Republicans at every possible opportunity. If you don't like democrats then vote for Libertarians. Anybody who has no connection to the traitors.

"But the fact remains that the legacy we leave will bind all Americans, not merely a specific political administration."

Yes. For the next 50 years, whenever a Republican runs for office we should point out the Bush example and if that particular politician looks like he's any good, persuade him to change to a decent party. There isn't anything we can do about the damage that's already been done. It might help our feelings a little to send Bush and Cheney to the Hague but it wouldn't really improve things.

"The complexities and realities of this effort we are engaged in cannot be succinctly wrapped in a PR package to seel to John and Jane Q Public."

How about that! They did it and it didn't work. Or rather, it worked well enough to get us in.

"However, the daunting reality is that we need to do exaclty that if we are to remain decisively engaged in this effort, and supported by the public."

Yeah, if you want to continue the festercluck you need to find a way to make the advertising start working again. Best wishes but I can't wish you good luck.

This is a somewhat different point, in that I don't know the degree to which the US Administration is to blame for the slow progress in rebuilding the Iraqi military. But any realistic assessment needs to take account of where that effort stands.

Here is a question I have been asking myself lately: Who could one trust in Iraq to be the recipients of the miltary hardware that makes up a modern army, an army that has the technological capability to secure the nation against foreign powers. Who do you trust to receive those shipments of tanks, helicopters, fighter jets, missiles, field artillery, guns and ammo?

It is all very well to say we want Iraq to "stand up so that we can stand down". But it is very easy to imagine that heavy weaponry sold to the Iraqi government would end up:

diverted to the use of one particular faction, and used against other factions;

sold on the black market for cash;

passed on to insurgents or rebel groups, by allies of those groups within the government;

used aggressively against neighboring states; or

used by those military officers placed in charge of the equipment to effect a military takeover of some or all of Iraq.

I wonder just how much the slowness of the Iraqification process is really due to failures in "training", and how much it is due to the fact that the United States simply doesn't trust any parties in Iraq to play with the serious toys they will need in order to constitute a genuine Army - at least not without a babysiter.

I hate to say this but Suzanne's post is terribly defeatist and it is exactly why doubts remain about whether Democrats can be trusted on national security issues (and I speak as a Democrat). Withdrawal would run a very high risk of a Sunni run failed state that sponsors terrorism with a good chance of ethnic cleansing and genoicide along the way (especially in Baghdad). The Bush strategy of Iraqification and advancing the political process has some chance of working. All- I repeat, all- of the military officers and diplomats I have spoken to agrees with this to varying degrees. Even if it is only 30%, should we not at least wait and see. We have a responsibility to see this through and to do everything possible to avoid total catastrophe for the Iraqi people given that we largely created this mess by inadequate post war planning. The alternatives mentioned are fanciful. Does anyone trust Syria, Iran, et al to be responsible members of a contact group? Suzanne: this is no time to go wobbly, as Thatcher once said to Bush senior.

JohnFH: Time has told. Iraq is done. You should get used to thinking of it in terms of it's soon to be splinter states. Maybe, just maybe one of them won't boil dissidents in oil. Then you and your cronies can call it a democracy, and tell us all how worthwhile this whole misadventure was.

Concerned, you point out the problems of trusting syria iran et al to be responsible. However, you left out one. Why would anybody in their right minds trust the Bush administration to be responsible about cleaning up the mess they, specifically they, created?

I think we should give a strategy of political development and iraqification of the iraqi military its best chance, *after* bush and Cheney are impeached and a new administration has cleaned house.

If we can't clean house quickly enough then we should cut and run as the best of a very bad set of choices.

J Thomas: It's the mess we created, not "they", as in we the United States. The whole country is responsible, both for what happened before and what happens next. I agree that the Bush admin has screwed up big time in Iraq. However, it seems to me that after a period of harsh learning, they are now doing the best they can, as evidenced by the lack of viable and sensible alternatives forthcoming from our own party.

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