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July 21, 2008

A Surreal Situation in Iraq
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

It’s become pretty apparent both from Prime Minister Maliki’s statements over the past few days as well as through a slew of other assertions from senior Iraqi officials that they are comfortable with the idea of a timeline for the withdrawal of American combat forces by sometime in 2010 and a move towards a much more limited set of missions and presence. 

Perhaps one of the most surreal things about this situation is that the Iraqis seem to have come to this conclusion before either John McCain or George Bush.  For years, the administration’s policy has been “When they stand up, we’ll stand down.”  Well guess what.  The Iraqis are standing up and so far at least Bush and McCain’s response seems to be: “you’re not ready yet.”  In fact, today when asked about Maliki’s call for a timetable, McCain dismissed Maliki’s concerns saying “I know what they want.” 

In another ironic twist, since 2005 most Democrats have pushed for an American withdrawal or at the very least a threat of withdrawal to force Iraqis to take responsibility for their country and make the hard choices that could bring about political reconciliation.  Today the reverse is true.  Rather than the U.S. having to pressure the Iraqi government, it is in fact the Maliki government that is trying to put political pressure on the Bush Administration to get American troops to leave. 

This is absolutely crazy.  After waiting for Iraqis to assert themselves for five years we should be seizing this moment.  This is in fact in many ways one of the key elements for “success” - an Iraqi government eager to step up and take control of its own country.  I still can’t understand why McCain wouldn’t welcome this statement but here are some theories:

  • For years now Iraq diehards like McCain and Bush have had no sense of what victory is in Iraq or how to define.  Now that they are staring it in the face they don’t believe it.  They have fought for so long to keep American troops there, that they see any withdrawal as defeat – even if it isn’t and even if it comes at the request of the Iraqi Government. 
  • McCain really and truly wants permanent bases in Iraq and wants to use Iraq as a base from which to exert influence across the Middle East.  This is where many of the neocons are and I wouldn’t be surprised if McCain agreed.  Of course it is a horrificly bad idea and would only serve as a propaganda tool for Al Qaeda and create animosity across the Arab World
  • McCain has worked himself into such a box throughout the campaign that he has no choice but to keep calling for our troops to stay and to present the Obama position as “surrender.”  So he’s stuck taking this ridiculous political position because he has no other choice.

Either way you look at it.  If you step back for a second, what we have here is the Iraqis  declaring victory and offering Bush and McCain an “honorable” and responsible way out.  Bush and McCain’s response?  No thank you.


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I must say that I can sympathize with Bush and McCain's reluctance to embrace a chance for "victory." Think of the hesitancy of many Cold Warriors to accept the fall of the Soviet Union in the late eighties/early nineties. It's not that they didn't want victory; it's just that they had a hard time accepting that the moment had actually arrived.

There's definitely a political element to this, too. Say what you will about whether the invasion was correct and whether the post-war planning was unforgiveably poor, but it appears that the surge has made an enormous difference, and credit must go to Bush and McCain for supporting it. But now that Iraq appears to be ready (or at least willing) to stand up for itself, what need is there for either of them? I can already picture some on the right analogizing Obama winning the presidency with England's switch from Churchill to Atlee after WWII ended. What purpose does a warrior serve when the war is over?

Sorry, I must be missing something.

In what way is it a "horrifically bad idea" to set up permanent bases in Iraq?

Do you not think that a permanent detachment of U.S. forces in Iraq would ensure some modicum of stability among regional powers, much as it has in Korea and Germany? In what way do you think Iraq is different than either of those cases?

When the U.S. opted out of the League of Nations and basically washed its hands of Europe after WWI, do you consider that to have been a mistake as most historians do?