Wednesday, July 11, 2007

How to withdraw from Iraq

James F. Elliott presents an an accurate and perspicacious analysis of the complexities regarding our withdrawal from Iraq.

I suspect, though, that his efforts are akin to applying modern management-consulting business analysis to the Mafia: The analysis will be applicable and extremely valuable in principle, but it ignores the fundamental nature of the organization. I have no confidence at all that the intrinsically ethical and humanistic values underlying James' analysis bear any relationship whatsoever to the motivations of either our government nor to the ultra-wealthy elite who installed them.

I don't want to put down James' efforts: I think work such as James' is very valuable if for no other reason than to show that the reality and complexity of the situation is apprehensible to a well-informed citizen outside the State Department and government bureaucracy. I think it's virtually certain that exactly this sort of analysis has been presented by the State Department to the President as well as prominent Congressional leaders of both parties, and has been soundly ignored by all.

I do have to quibble with one aspect of James' analysis, though.

I don't know doodly-squat about the details of foreign policy execution. It's simply not feasible for me to express my political will as a citizen in terms of the implementation details of foreign policy. The best I can do as a citizen is to couch my political will in terms of the ethical basis for my position and count on the handsomely-paid professionals in the government to both work out the implementation details and my elected representatives to actively sell me the implementation as the best way to implement and fulfill the ethical basis on which I vote and advocate.

In other words, I don't think it's at all objectionable for me to say, "Imperialism is bad, the Iraq war is an instance of imperialism, therefore I want the war to end right now." My objection to the stinks-on-ice appropriation supplemental, for instance, is not that it employs nuanced and detailed methods and fails to provide instant gratification, but that it does not even appear to be responding to the ethical basis of my objections to the war.

When I go to the doctor, I want my cancer cured right away; it's the doctor's job to persuade me that a cure is going to require a lengthy course of chemotherapy. Fine, I'll allow myself to be persuaded. But if she goes on about how horrible my cancer is but refuses to treat it at all and hands me a couple of aspirin, I have legitimate cause for complaint, even though I don't know any more about medicine than I do about foreign policy.


  1. Larry,

    You and I do not see quite eye-to-eye on the occupation of Iraq, which is why I did not ask to cross-post my essay. I respect the principled call for withdrawal immensely, and it is never my intent or desire to cast aspersions on those that do so. My overall intent was twofold: to combat the simplistic assertions made by supporters of the status quo that American efforts will improve the situation in Iraq if the military is just “given more time to do the work.” On the other hand, however, the only supporter of withdrawal that I have seen acknowledge the likely consequences of that action is the immensely talented Spencer Ackerman, formerly of The New Republic and now at The American Prospect and TPM Muckraker.

    I wished to make it very clear that withdrawal has disastrous consequences for the Iraqis, which I believe the facts on the ground make apparent that they will be far worse than Darfur or Mogadishu circa 1993. The only analogous situation I can think of in recent memory is the Balkan conflict begun by nascent Serbian nationalism, which even then is not totally apropos. The anarchic, multi-polar war already taking place in Iraq will, without U.S. troops, flare out of control, resulting in a bloodletting hundreds of years in the making.

    I do not feel that casting the question in terms of values is wrong in the sense that those values as expressed are incorrect. I broadly agree with the sentiments expressed by those who see America’s presence in Iraq as exploitive and, therefore, inherently wrong. But, like Ezra Klein, I have long held that any discussion of values undergirding discussion of foreign policy (or anything else, for that matter) simply must focus more on the probably consequences to be of any use. I think, in this realm, that my brief stint as a foreign policy neoconservative while studying international relations at UC Davis helps me immensely in this respect: if ever there was a school of thought divorced (ironically enough, given Irving Kristol’s original intent) from the consequences of the policies it advocates, it is neoconservativism. Hence the mess we are in.

    All of the suggested strategies for the United States’s current dilemma are variations on one of three broad themes: a) we must redeploy; b) we must give the current strategy more time; or c) we must leave. As I hope my essay illustrated, I believe that withdrawal is the only practical option. Our country does not have the ability to conduct a proper “surge” of the kind counterinsurgency doctrine calls for, nor does it have the “will” (domestically and politically on either side of the aisle) to embrace the reality of what either a further “surge” or partitioned state would call for in terms of a national commitment, and I remain sanguine about the ability of the American people to deliver should such a call be made. The military simply, by dint of existing resources of man and machine, does not have the ability to maintain the status quo beyond early spring of 2008. The first two options being out, that leaves withdrawal. We can either leave on our own terms, with plans to redeploy special operations forces to other bases in the Middle East, or we can experience a withdrawal necessitated by an urgent shortage that resembles nothing so more than a panicked retreat.

    Since withdrawal faces its own challenges, it is best to acknowledge those issues; namely, what do we do about Iraqi refugees and what do we do about the civil war that will explode into open warfare. I believe that, since as a nation we did not hold our leaders accountable and allowed this situation to both begin and perpetuate, we owe the Iraqi people a debt that honor, if we have any, compels us to discharge. I do not want American forces to withdraw because I feel we are responsible for the situation that has occurred through cronyism, avarice, incompetence, and political malfeasance by our leaders. But I acknowledge that, having allowed this situation to develop, reality compels us to accept our limitations. Many, many lives will be lost in the event of our staying or departing. It is important to recognize that simple fact: the wall is going to hit us, whether we charge or crawl to it. Everyone who chooses to pick a side should be upfront and honest about the consequences. That essay was my way of doing so.

  2. James,

    I think you and I do pretty much see eye to eye about Iraq: We both consider it not just an incompentent but also an immoral war from which we should withdraw as quickly as practically and, more importantly, ethically possible. There are some details we disagree on—I'm not at all convinced our military presence is doing any partial good or mitigation—but I largely defer to your opinion (or the opinion of others more expert than I am) on such matter.

    But I'm not an expert on the implementation of foreign policy, and I know I'm not an expert. All I can do is howl my moral indignation and demand that the experts and authorities figure a way out.

    If I saw the slightest hint of the nuance and perspicacious analysis of your essay in even the Democratic party, I might be more moderate in my political demands. But I don't see it. I don't see any choice but to demand to simply withdraw funding and trigger a Saigon-style clusterfuck and hope such a demand might motivate these bastards to do something sensible.

    I understand the risk that such a call might also result in being taken literally (cough Vietnam). I don't like that risk, and I hate that I'm risking other people's lives. But I didn't choose to be a citizen of the most militarily powerful nation in the world, and I'm risking other people's lives no matter what I demand, or even if I demand nothing.

    More than four years of compromise and moderate requests have not even resulted in the Democrats adopting anything even remotely resembling a sensible position about Iraq and Iran: All the leading Democrats still have their eye on Iraqi oil, all still support an indefinite occupation (albeit at about half the current force levels) and all still support military action against Iran.

    So what am I supposed to do? It's not my job to figure out how to get out of Iraq. It's your job, and, more importantly, the job of the people in government who are drawing salaries precisely for this purpose.

    I don't think that immediate, precipitous withdrawal is the best option: I do think you're pretty close to the mark: any withdrawal is going to result in a regional bloodbath, worse that what exists now.

    If there were any nation, group, body with both sufficient military power and competence, political will and moral credibility to wind down the situation in Iraq and the Middle East with a minimum of bloodshed, I would happily endorse putting that entity in charge and paying all the bills: It is clear that the United States lacks at least the moral credibility (in addition to the necessary military competence) to do the job.

    But I don't think there's any such group. Only the UN or some coalition of Islamic states would have the necessary moral credibility, and the UN lacks power and political will, and the central Sunni vs. Shi'ite (vs. Kurdish) conflict makes it difficult to see how enough fractious and mutually jealous Islamic states could cooperate to not be seen as explicitly sectarian: We would have to see, for instance, a joint Iranian-Saudi effort to stabilize the region, and I just don't see that in the tea leaves.

    I see only two realistic possibilities: Hard-core Roman- or Soviet-style imperialism, which might at least defer the bloodbath for a couple of generations and maybe mitigate the consequences (or maybe not, cough Yugoslavia). The other is to admit that we've fucked up big-time, the situation is not fixable, and do what we can—which won't be much—to mitigate the humanitarian consequences.


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