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October 04, 2005

Now the Firing Squads: CAP Makes a Proposal for Iraq
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

Kudos to the folks over at Center for American Progress (and yes, they are one of our sponsors here at DA) for spelling out something many have been quietly thinking:  a plan for ratcheting back but not ending the US presence in Iraq, turning as much security as possible over to Iraqi troops and the various Shiite and Kurdish militias.  This would allow a lower US profile as well as freeing up troops for Afghanistan, anti-terror missions, and a less killing tempo of operations (rotating troops back to the US more frequently and for longer stays).

Now, CAP could have been more honest about what this costs us:  possibly accelerating a slide toward civil war (check out Informed Comment for lengthy back-and-forth on whether US troops prevent or assist one's arrival); surely accelerating some rather noxious forms of local rule; abandoning the claim that we are helping Iraqis build a democratic, secular state; admitting that we will tolerate continuing low- to medium-level violence as long as it stays contained within Iraq.

Those tradeoffs may not be yours, but folks, some tradeoffs are going to have to be made.  CAP has made a good start at outlining what analysts like our own Derek Chollet say is happening anyway, as various military leaders and Administration friends continue to talk about drawdowns next year, whatever W. says to the contrary.

Now comes the odd part:  Patrick Doherty over at says US troops should stay; that priority should be on negotiating international agreements, not brokered by the US, that would cut down the insurgency, allow for real economic revival, and lead the various forces to commit their troops in wayst hat would be more stable.  Patrick sets out brutally the possible cost of a precipitous US withdrawal -- civil war, using Juan Cole's prediction of as many as one million dead.  He also thinks that the CAP paper smacks of "cynical, cold-blooded calculation" in its concern for oil access.  (To which I say:  the GOP give no evidence recently of dispassionate, cold-blooded thought.  I'd feel better if I thought someone was thinking cold-bloodedly.  It'd be progress.)  He also thinks that just promoting this plan will help the GOP maintain its majority in Congress in '06.

So I just have to pause and note that the center-left now wants us to begin withdrawing while the lefter-left, or at least some of it, wants us to stay?  This is odd, and needs further thought.  But it also suggests sophisticated reasoning on all sides, which is hopeful.

Patrick is honest about costs, which is important.  If, in fact, the Administration does begin implementing a partial pullout without admitting it, outside groups will have the job of "nattering nabobs of negativism" -- pointing out all the bad things the Admin has abandoned us and the Iraqis to.  Note:  that is the job of people who  are not running for office.  People who are running for office have to explain what they would do better.  It's different.

I do think that most of the important questions here have empirical answers, I just don't know them:

Is a civil war more likely and more bloody if we pull out partially, entirely or not at all?  The CAP proposal is rather silent on what a reduced US force does in the face of massive civil unrest/killing.

Is the notion of negotiations run by some non-US figure, which many on the left see as a potential solution, at all possible?  It's appealing, yes, but I find it discouraging that there are no signs of UN or European interest in running such a thing, and precious few comments from people who are real Iraq experts that this could work.

So, if we could turn down the rhetoric a notch, look for the real answers and stop aiming the guns at each other (the idea that the CAP, by putting out a policy paper, is helping the GOP keep control of Congress... honestly, if only papers written by people like us actually did matter that much...) there's a lot that needs refinement here.  But at least we now have intelligent people talking specifics.

Lastly, a great quote from Iraq vet Bryan Lentz, who is running for Congress against 10-term Curt Weldon (R-PA):  "I'm not anti-war, I'm anti-failure."  He's one of 6 vets running as Ds; at least 2 are running as Rs, says the AP.  What is the Iraq War ushering into our politics?  Remains to be seen.


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A brief question, as it's too late for me to trawl Google (which, I have learned, one with ADD should not do before bedtime):

Where does "nattering nabobs of negativism" come from?

Thanks for a great post, Heather.

It's obvious, I think, that we can't leave those parts of Iraq where the insurgency is strongest for the forseeable future.

There is nothing in Iraqi military history to suggest that its armed forces will be able to provide air support for mechanized divisions, for example, any time soon. Even if we brought back part or all of Saddam's former military elites. I don't know whether Lentz has a chance against Weldon, but I wish him well.

Right now the base of the Democratic party is divided between those who are anti-war even if that means failure, and those who are anti-failure even if that means being pro-war.

nattering quo, agnew household word, speechwriter

"I'm not anti-war, I'm anti-failure."

As I recall that was the stance of failed prexy hopeful Kerry.

Part of the problem seems to be that no one can postulate a working definition of "success."

Well, we have succeeded in not finding WMDs. We have succeeded in regime change. We have succeeded in flytrapping terrorists. We have succeeded in establishing an Iranian-styled theorcracy in Iraq. We have succeeded in shedding blood for less oil (in Michael Klare's words), a couple of thousand US troops killed, thousands more wounded and maimed. And in the process we have succeeded in decimating Iraqi civilians. We have succeeded in circumventing geneva conventions on torture, not to mention Nuremburg war crime protocols (the winners always write the rulebooks).

Why is it we are not satisfied with these successes?

"Now, CAP could have been more honest about what this costs us... abandoning the claim that we are helping Iraqis build a democratic, secular state..."

I thought this was given up long ago, even by the Bushies.

Refusing to admit failure isn't going to help.

CAP's call for negotiating with Iran is interesting. What are they willing to offer?

Well, first of all it's good to see Dems from far-left to center left thinking geostrategically again. About time.

Second, I think Patrick's points are excellent - we can preserve our position as leader of the free world precisely by leading, and that means serious long-term diplomacy. And I agree that leaving Iraq and possibly the region to face civil war is both morally vacuous and strategically flawed, tactically sound as it may be.

Where Patrick goes astray is in time frames. The kinds of diplomatic breakthroughs he describes are years, decades in the making, and still subject to chance. Not to mention that our presence seems to have launched earthquakes along the deep-running Sunni-Shi'a fault. Now that those tensions are active again, I believe we have to make progress on the fundamentals of Sunni-Shi'a relations before things can get better, but again that's a decades-long process, not a three-year fix.

Patrick is dead right that no matter what, we need a force of hundreds of thousands mobilized and ready to tamp full-scale civil war back down to isolated attacks. It's not clear to me how well the presence of any non-Muslim forces in holy sites and Arabia in general will play out, so perhaps we ought to be knocking at the door of the Indonesians right now. And a multinational regional force needs to be a sizable part of security there. If there was a peacekeeping force of Turks, Iranians, Syrians and Saudis, with a small US/UN/NATO presence there to make sure they all played nice together, you might keep peace both in Iraq and the region. Those kinds of agreements, are acheivable in the order of years, even if my notion of all those countries happily cooperating military is a bit optimistic.

There is already a great deal of civil conflict occurring in Iraq, and there are many competing groups involved in different conflicts. Exactly how bad these conflicts must get before one decides to call them a "civil war" is a curious semantic question. I guess when urban neighborhoods are ethnically cleansed of 20 or 30 people at a clip, who end up lying in a field or floating down a river with bullets in their heads, or when 50 people are killed in a suicide bombing, we are deciding not to call that a civil war.

As even our generals are now admitting, there are ways in which we are currently contributing to the cycle of violence and instability in Iraq. There may be other ways in which we are helping to keep the lid on it, and can continue to do so in the future. But we obviously need a drastically different approach, and in my opinion need to get most of our troops out of harm’s way, and separate them from day-to-day conflict with the various insurgent groups they are fighting.

Some of those groups may turn to fighting each other, even more than they are already doing. We can perhaps do things to prevent these conflicts from exploding completely. But the United States has very limited power to end these conflicts, since they are not our conflicts to begin with, and since we are not a trusted or effective broker for the parties to the conflicts. There may be some instances of fighting which will have to run their course before the conflict can be resolved. But we can probably help by our continued, lowered-involvement presence to keep large armaments out of the country, and to prevent intervention by regional powers.

We should regard the appearance of a Taliban-like Salafist mini-state in Western Anbar province as intolerable. Even rule by Baathists, or by Saudi or Gulf-style conservative, authoritarian sheikhdoms or emirates would be preferable. The Salafists thrive mainly by terror and intimidation, and are a ruthless pack of fanatical young thugs. And they don’t at all represent a majority of people in the region – even of those who are fighting fiercely against us. Somehow we have to help other powers assert control and establish order in the Sunni Triangle, even if those other powers are not exactly our favorite people.

One of the dopiest aspects of our current policy is the apparent effort to isolate, weaken and destabilize the Syrian government. There is nobody waiting in the wings to take charge of a fallen Syria! Are the wizards in Washington trying to create a mega-Anbar province, one that extends from Iraq to Israel, Lebanon and the Mediterranean? What are these guys thinking!?

It disturbs me to see debates about the Iraqi conflict, at this late date, posed in terms of “success or failure”. Whatever the old project was exactly, it’s hard to think of any realistic, achievable outcome that would represent anything close to success for that project. Isn’t it clear that we have been in make-the-best-of-a-bad-situation mode for quite some time now? It's time to turn the historical page and stop thinking of Iraq in terms of the arguments of 2002 and 2003. There is no longer any hope of a vigorous pan-Iraqi democracy. The constitution, if approved, will not produce a democracy - it is just a preliminary charter toward the division of the geographical spoils in Iraq. One way or another we are going to have one or more Shiite autonomous regions in the South, and Kurdish state in the north and some sort of Sunni Arab entity or entities in the center. Futile strivings for “success” in Iraq simply get in the way of practical efforts to achieve something that would qualify as less than dreadful.

In leaving Iraq, we don’t want to create a situation in which we are dragged back in their a few months or years later. In that regard, a certain amount of cold-blooded calculation regarding oil is absolutely necessary! We all know that the one factor most likely to pull us, and our sons and daughters, back into Iraq is oil – whether because it falls into the hands of people who begin to use it as a political and economic weapon; or because continuing war and insecurity in Iraq puts Iraqi oil exports at risk; or because the oil becomes the property of criminal oligarchs who plow the petrodollars into the drug and arms trade, or into other destabilizing and corrupt threats to global peace and security; or because the weakness of the local powers makes Iraq an attractive target for predation by oil-hungry outside state powers. The focus should be on multinational efforts to achieve some stable settlement in Iraq, so that Iraq's oil does not become an object of global insecurity and strife. We all need to know who is going to run the oil industry, how the oil is going to be delivered to the outside world, how responsible management will be maintained, and who is going to provide the security to protect the industry.

This would allow a lower US profile as well as freeing up troops for Afghanistan, anti-terror missions, and a less killing tempo of operations (rotating troops back to the US more frequently and for longer stays).

Is there a really serious shortage of troops available for anti-terror missions? How many of these missions are needed? Getting a lot of our troops out of Iraq is a good move because (i) the current deployments seem in many ways to be making the situation in Iraq worse not better, and (ii) those guys deserve to come home. Is it really necessary to dream up these phony-baloney reasons for the removal? It strikes me that much of the motivation for this kind of talk is to dress-up a troop withdrawal as a troop movement, so the advocates can appear to be sufficiently tough and war-loving, and avoid the cutting-and-running charge. OK, if pro-war Dems feel the need to convince themselves that we have to get our guys out of Iraq so we can use them to prevent Islamist subversion in Antarctica, or to thwart a Chinese incursion into Guam, or to mount a 50,000 man operation to kill Osama Bin Laden (if he actually is still alive), then fine. But we need to get them out.

Dan, re your last point...

Is the concept of saving face so foreign?

Is the concept of saving face so foreign?


No, but pushed beyond a certain point it just seems absurd. If I offer to give you a ride to the store, and run over your wife's foot while backing out of your driveway, it would be stupid to say: "Um, I meant to do that ... but nevertheless, I'm going to pull forward a bit and then employ a different path in backing out, because now that I've accomplished my goals vis-a-vis your wife's foot, it occurs to me that I should run over a few of those pesky chipmunks as well, to save your home from a terrible chipmunk infestation."

And a concern with reputation and face-saving often paralyzes rationality, and leads to intolerable gaps between the recognition that something must be done and the doing of it. Where thousands of lives, and the stability of a whole region, are at stake, it is criminal to delay as we search for rhetorical means of avoiding embarrassment.

And a concern with reputation and face-saving often paralyzes rationality, and leads to intolerable gaps between the recognition that something must be done and the doing of it. Where thousands of lives, and the stability of a whole region, are at stake, it is criminal to delay as we search for rhetorical means of avoiding embarrassment.

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