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September 17, 2006

What to Talk About When You Talk About Iraq
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

Progressives and liberals are flummoxed when it comes to what to say about Iraq.  Rather than reflecting weakness, indecision or political cowardice, the dilemma is genuine and not of their own making. 

Virtually every piece of good advice propounded by analysts in recent years - holding together the pre-invasion Iraqi army, internationalizing the war when it still might have been possible, treating the Iraqi people with utmost respect for human rights, manning the reconstruction effort adequately during the early, opinion-shaping days - was ignored.  The results have been so disastrous that many once valid proposals and approaches would now no longer work.   Yet with every step on the route toward utter intractability, progressives feel forced to answer the inevitable "that's what you said then, but what would you do in Iraq now."

The dilemmas of how to reply obvious:  if you speak about the geopolitical importance of preventing Iraq from becoming even more of a failed state amid a volatile region, you are coming out in favor of staying a course that's a manifest disaster.   After so many wise recommended mid-stream corrections have been rejected, words spent on how the Iraq operation should be more effectively deployed or managed, or how its goals should be refined, seem wasted.  With Rumsfeld at the helm, this is the war we have, not the war we want.  And that won't change anytime before the Administration does. 

Yet talk of withdrawal - or even strategic redeployment to outlying parts of the region - is portrayed as turning our back against the most important and costly military intervention of a generation.   Echoing Vietnam, if we do withdraw we will always wonder whether, with a different strategy and different leadership, success might have been in reach.

Under the circumstances, the right position on the war is that . . .

. . . if it were possible, even at this late date, to put in new leadership (both civilian and, in some cases, military), to break from some of the mistakes of the past and reconsider fundamentals of strategy and troop levels, given the stakes that would be well worth trying.  But since its clear that President Bush will never contemplate such a turnaround effort, favoring the continued prosecution of the war gives a blank check to a team that had led us into disaster, and promises only more of the same. 

Its like a family business that has the potential to turn a profit, but is being run into the ground by a stubborn patriarch.  If you could get him to step inside in favor of a competent manager, a worthy enterprise and heavy past investments might be salvaged.  But if he's intransigent, rather than sinking more of the family's fortune, the best course may be to simply close the company down.

So what's the message:  "I cannot support the continuation of this war led by President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld.  The past 3 years have convinced me that under their stewardship, the manner in which the war has been prosecuted has led to excessive losses for American soldiers, without resulting in a more stable Iraq or securing American national security interests in the region.  I cannot in good conscience keep writing blank checks for the continuation of a approach that is manifestly failing,  by an Administration that stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the facts or to strive for a better strategy. 

Am I concerned about the consequences for the region if the United States were to pull out?  Do I worry that having laid the groundwork for Iraq to become a terrorist haven, we will leave behind a region more dangerous to American security than the one we entered?

Absolutely.  I believe that stabilizing Iraq is the central national security challenge of our time, but what I've lost is any confidence that this Administration is prepared to face up to it.  They say they are, yet have for more than three years failed to get it right.  Rather than taking a hard look at the challenge and how to more effectively meet it, they've put their heads in the sand and insisted only on staying the course. 

Let me make one thing clear:  this is not cut and run.  I'd prefer to stay in Iraq, take a hard, unfiltered look at our political and military challenges, and put in a team capable of taking a fresh look at the errors made and how to correct them at this late date.  If we could come to grips with what's gone wrong and make a solemn pledge to the American people that rather than being wedded to the failed approaches of the past we're prepared to reexamine everything from troop levels to deployment patterns to counter-insurgency strategy, then I'd press that we stay. 

But this Administration has been urged to do that time and time again, yet refuses.  It's stuck and rather than trying to pry itself loose it prefers to bog down the American military and people with it.  That's not the kind of leadership I'm prepared to follow into battle, and I don't think U.S. servicemembers should have to either.

This is not the only point that ought to be made:  progressives should keep right on reminding the public how and why we were backed into this Hobson's choice.  They should insist that whatever happens in the near-term, the US state unequivocally that it does not intend to maintain permanent bases in Iraq.  (The hows, whens and timetables for a redeployment that the Administration says won't happen on their watch are mostly moot).

But when none of that's good enough and Kofi Annan's bullseye assessment of last week: that the US "cannot stay and it cannot leave," will not due, the refusal to stay in under present leadership is the right position.


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Suzanne- while I sympathize whole-heartedly with what you have tried to do isn't the end result that you are suggesting simply a lack of support for the mission as it is? And what does that mean, that Congress should refuse to pay for it? I still don't get what this actually means in terms of policy choices if, say, the Dems retake the Congress in November.


Yet with every step on the route toward utter intractability, progressives feel forced to answer the inevitable "that's what you said then, but what would you do in Iraq now."

And not just progressives. I think most Americans are asking themselves this question.

So thanks for telling me what my "position on the war" should be. But I missed the part where you answer the question about what should be done now about what you say is the "the central national security challenge of our time". I know it has something to do with not writing blank checks and not following the current leadership. But could you be a bit less elliptical about what is to be done?

Echoing Vietnam, if we do withdraw we will always wonder whether, with a different strategy and different leadership, success might have been in reach.

What democracy promotion strategy could we have followed that avoided the Iraqi voters?

Bush's Islamic Republic:

On June 4, 2005 Jalal Talabani, president of Iraq, attended the inauguration
of the Kurdistan National Assembly in Erbil, northern Iraq...

The shortest speech was given by the head of the Iranian intelligence
service in Erbil.... Staring
directly at Ann Bodine, the head of the American embassy office in Kirkuk, he said simply, "This is a great day. Throughout
Iraq, the people we supported are in power." He did not add "Thank you,
George Bush." The unstated was understood.

The Iraqis have spoken. They voted for Iranian puppets who have no respect for human rights. Your incompetence dodge doesn't cut it.

(BTW, "success" in Vietnam would have meant installing a Catholic dictatorship in a Buddhist country. The same holds true in Iraq: a sunni dictatorship was necessary if we wanted to curb Iranian influence.)

Democrats are doing a lot of this kind of tail-chasing right now. They are trying to craft a winning campaign theme that damages Republican candidates for Congress while running no risk of offending Democratic activists or being counterattacked by Republican operatives and the White House.

This is a fool's errand if ever there was one. Campaign operatives tend not to be very effective on serious matters of policy substance, but this is a two-way street; people who spend most of their time thinking about substance tend not to be very effective at campaign politics either. In any event, as a practical matter it is very hard to divorce a campaign theme on an issue like national security from the personal credibility of the politician running on it. If you have a politician with a record of disinterest in national security issues, handing him a carefully crafted campaign message isn't going to help him that much.

This is the message the Democrats ought to have learned from the last Presidential election. The lesson they appear to have learned instead is that Sen. Kerry's campaign was deficient in tradecraft, or that his position on Iraq emphasized the wrong nuances. His campaign's real problem wasn't its message but its candidate, and that is the biggest problem facing the Democrats now -- voters have come to distrust the Bush administration on national security issues, but there is no Democrat with the credibility to claim that trust for himself and his party.

Democrats are looking for a "silver bullet" message in this election, and there isn't one. There is for them an opportunity to promote new faces with a better chance of being seen as credible on national security issues, like Jim Webb in Virginia. That, and pounding away on the administration's failings, is all they have time to do between now and the election. Working out the details of a program for Iraq and the rest of national security policy will have to be left for later.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this administration's curiously underfunded, undermanned nation-building experiment is that which no one acknowledges:

We need(ed) a strong friend in the eastern sprawl of the Middle East.

You see, we're quite fortunate to have a liberal democracy such as Israel, and a NATO ally in Turkey, holding down the western swath of the region. Both are highly competent, fairly liberal, military powers.

Neither is burdened with oil or the dynastic plagues of other area nations. They're dynamic and friendly. They even talk to each other, and us.

Oy, if only we had an Israel in the east!

Instead, we have dependencies. Rich in oil, short in human capital, water or military power, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and Qatar and (fill in the blank) require frequent deployments by U.S. boots to prop them up.

For all the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments over the costs of blood and treasure in Iraq, bear in mind that we've paid quite a bit since 1991 in our liberation of Kuwait and the subsequent "containment" policy.

A "strategic redeployment" won't change that. We go back to the status quo, now with a rising Persia with empirical aims glancing at some of the globe's most ample petroleum reserves.

And, with growing WMD ambitions, I only foresee more strife, and greater expenditures, whether we're in Mesopotamia or slumming along the neighborhoods nearest the delta.

If you're a realpolitik sort of fellow, Iraq could've been our "Israel" or "Turkey." Alas, DoD' sheer incompetence, all the ifs intruding on the realities of the nation -- all the dreams becoming nightmare -- doomed the mission.

Rather if you're like me (are we re-branded as "progressives" now? Or "liberals?" I haven't received my talking points on that one, so I'll continue to see myself as the less tonier "Democrat"), and you think it's swell to have a small-d democratic-centric foreign policy, with a tad more regard for human rights and the decency of free expression, then it's probably "stay the course."

A year ago, a very wise and prescient author mentioned the very real fallout from failure in Iraq of our present strategies.

Chief among them were concerns about potential for a loss of military morale, and the American peoples' growing disillusionment with force projection as a sort of solution to some of the world's most seemingly intractable problems.

The problem now is for to make the point to the "progressive" or "liberal" base that sometimes military force is necessary to help fellow democracies, support partners with certain economic benefits accruing to us, or championing the dispossessed and downtrodden.

I'm not so sage as to know when it's proper to use us to do so. That's your job.

For all the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments over the costs of blood and treasure in Iraq, bear in mind that we've paid quite a bit since 1991 in our liberation of Kuwait and the subsequent "containment" policy.

This is uninformed or disingenuous. I have seen several articles that run the numbers, and the cost of 'containment' was a fraction of what is now being spent on the war.

the question truly is, as you put it, what do we do now?
I believe that if we put pressure on our representatives to support and accomplish the Millenium Development Goals, that we would be able to live in a world where terroism would be extremely lessened, and the small groups of terrorists would be more easily found. The difference in world security would be astounding.

The "uninformed" would apply mostly to someone raising a point and then not backing it up, instead relying on a fuzzy "I've seen somewhere" barb of dubious value.

A more prudent quipper might have considered the range of estimates for past and future "containment" models. Ex ante vs, well, ante, or at least ex post.

NBER, for example, suggests that a present value cost of $300 billion for "containment" of Iraq (what would be 'contained' is something debatable), and the cost of continuing the "stay the course" policy would be something along the lines of $100 - $800 billion (end cost).

Again, one must be a tad circumspect when looking at a range of $700 billion.

You can probably google Davis, Topel and Murphy and "containment" and get the paper, which has been making the rounds for a few months if you're interested in their methodology.

It follows on a study they did at UChicago several years ago. Before the war, if I recall, they put the figure on the first year at something below $150 billion. Again, that was for one year, if I remember correctly.

If Congress is correct, then containment cost a very conservative $13 billion per annum. It was estimated that in the wake of 9-11, the increased expenditures for remaining on vigil would be about $19-$20 billion annually WITHOUT a war in Iraq.

When you look at those figures, and assume Saddam's normal life span (and drastically increased security costs AFTER he died and chaos ensued that wouldn't be factored in), then you're probably envisioning, oh, about $400 billion in costs tied to containment, or about what we're projected to spend in five years on U.S. Homeland Security expenditures.

Instead, we chose war.

There are other numbers one could try. Nordhaus had similar sorts of figures on the eve of war.

GAO came out with some interesting data in 2005 when I was bound for Iraq.

But what it comes down to is this: We would be spending probably about half of what we do now "containing" Iraq in the post-2001 reality.

If I had to average the estimates for expenditures, it probably would look like $525 billion (cost of war) as opposed to a low estimate of $325 billion for containment.

This doesn't reflect the cost incurred by casualties (Coalition, insurgency, innocents), or the wins for Iraqis in terms of GDP growth, et al.

What this does show is the difference between those of us who are quite informed, and those who making meaningless, masturbatory jabs whilst posting on websites.

You see, knowing such matters keeps people like me alive, whereas nebulous prattle on a website makes you feel better about what preconceived opinion you had about a topic you know nothing about.

SoldierInIraq- how can you ignore the casualty estimates and just look at the direct economic costs? That's bizarre to me. And by the way, once you factor in the costs of medical care for the rest of their lives for the almost 20,000 wounded the costs of Iraq go to about $1 trillion. I'm all for realism, but it's not like what you presented is perfect. Also, wasn't it the misinformed who got us into this war in the first place?


What to do now?

Assuming that Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld stay in office until 2008, a congress that could get a consensus should require that iraq be evacuated. We can't expect any sort of competent strategy. We can't hope that providing more money would get any better result, while continuing the present funding is hopeless and reducing our presence would potentially lead to a disaster for the rear guard left behind in iraq. So the best available choice is to require a withdrawal.

If Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld can be replaced by somebody who doesn't need to continue the failing habits, then we could look at trying to salvage something from the mess. But for that we'd need some kind of hope in somebody new.

If we can't get Rumsfeld/etc removed, and we can't get a pullout, then it's too soon to say what to do. There's no way to predict how bad it will be by 2009 when the first real choice can be made. There's just no point trying to predict that far out.

Imagine somebody in September 2004 trying to predict what we should be doing in January 2007. Very unlikely they'd predict what we're facing. As I remember it, in 2004 we had a firm consensus that nobody in iraq could stand up to us at all. Lots of people were convinced that the terrorists had their nerve center in Fallujah which we had surrounded, and once we neutralised the terrorist leadership in Fallujah the country would get a lot more peaceful.

Two years ago I certainly wouldn't have thought that by now we'd write off Anbar province.

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