Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The Fog of Withdrawal, Part One

It must be very strange to be President Bush. A man of extraordinary vision and brilliance approaching to genius, he can't get anyone to notice. He is like a great painter or musician who is ahead of his time, and who unveils one masterpiece after another to a reception that, when not bored, is hostile.

John Hinderaker
July 28, 2005 (via
Legal Fiction)
Suffice to say that I don't really share Hinderaker's assessment of our President, save for the part about it likely being "very strange to be President Bush." But maybe I am just one more troglodyte who can't grasp the genius of our Mozart in the White House. Call me Salieri. Who else but an artist with a Matisse-like grasp of color could have painted the record budget surpluses from jet black to such a stunning shade of red. Who but a mathematician of Newtonian stature could convince the Congress that a Medicare drug bill that will cost in the neighborhood of $1.2 trillion would only carry a price tag of $400 billion - and even then, would be met with cool reception from seniors who grasp the fact that the law's real beneficiaries are the already obscenely profitable pharmaceutical companies. Such esoteric calculus eludes my feeble computation faculties. Only a visionary with the imagination of Einstein could see that the unprecedented cutting of taxes for the wealthiest members of a nation during a time of war is a prudent fiscal decision to make - three times! And the list goes on.

Leaving aside those "masterpieces" and the many other minor works of genius churned out by our virtuoso-in-chief, I want to focus on what is surely his magnum opus: the Iraq war. At this stage in Bush's creation of his own personal Sistine Chapel, the latest layer of paint applied includes the hues and tones of

Should We Stay Or Should We Go

We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect rule Iraq...Had we gone the invasion route, the United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land. It would have been a dramatically different - and perhaps barren - outcome.
George H. W. Bush discussing his decision not to continue on to Baghdad after Gulf War I.

Even if Hussein were captured and his regime toppled, U.S. forces would still have been confronted with the specter of a military occupation of indefinite duration to pacify the country and sustain a new government in power.

Removing him from power might well have plunged Iraq into civil war, sucking U.S. forces in to preserve order. Had we elected to march on Baghdad, our forces might still be there.
James Baker in a 1996 Op-Ed piece

We will stay until the job is done. And the job is for Iraq to be free and peaceful...
George W. Bush, November 2003

Donald Rumsfeld, General George Casey (the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq) and Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari all signaled last week that there would be a major draw down in US forces as early as next Spring - possibly to as few as 50,000 from the current total of around 140,000. Although the declaration came with the usual caveats about conditions on the ground allowing for such a withdrawal, and an indication of the importance of benchmarks such as the drafting of a constitution and nationwide elections, there was an undercurrent of inevitability to the announcement. It is unlikely that our military would be able to sustain the same level of troop commitment much past that date without further compromising our readiness and force strength no matter the political will. And even then, the American people are turning against the war in poll after poll, and the GOP is mindful of the 2006 midterm elections looming on the horizon. The timing of the proposed withdrawal coincides nicely with the commencement of campaign season. Finally, there has been a realization amongst the foreign policy advisors in the White House that the dream of a Jeffersonian democracy in Iraq was the product of the fantastic thinking of a group dubbed "
the illusionists" by Ambassador John Negroponte. In other words: time to reassess.

In the world of ever evolving definitions of success and the rapid relocation of goal posts, it seems almost quaint to recall President Bush's defiant claim that we would stay in Iraq until the nation was free and peaceful - a stance
reiterated as recently as a couple months ago. Now it appears that we will relinquish the duty to maintain security in Iraq to the Iraqis, and tolerate an outcome that leaves much to be desired in terms of both freedom and peace. Consider this: at present, and over the course of the past few years, on average, more than 800 Iraqi civilians have died each month - and that's the status quo absent the very real possibility of a full blown civil war which would be immeasurably worse. Or so it would seem. Now even civil war is being spun as a positive. The inscrutable genius of Bush's foreign policy I guess. From Spencer Ackerman:

If the U.S. ends up withdrawing from Iraq even as chaos rages, the question arises: How will hawks maintain their unshakable claims that the war was justified and victory is inevitable? It's a difficult question, but today we have an answer, courtesy of David Ignatius of The Washington Post. Ignatius's contention is that civil war--which, only months ago, hawks argued would never come about--wouldn't be the end of the argument:

Pessimists increasingly argue that Iraq may be going the way of Lebanon in the 1970s. I hope that isn't so, and that Iraq avoids civil war. But people should realize that even Lebanonization wouldn't be the end of the story. The Lebanese turned to sectarian militias when their army and police couldn't provide security. But through more than 15 years of civil war, Lebanon continued to have a president, a prime minister, a parliament and an army. The country was on ice, in effect, while the sectarian battles raged. The national identity survived, and it came roaring back this spring in the Cedar Revolution that drove out Syrian troops.
In this blithe description, fifteen years of carnage and atrocity followed by a further fifteen years of foreign domination was merely a prelude to the hopeful scenes of Martyrs' Square. (Hey, you need martyrs, right?) It's a debatable contention whether the "national identity" of Lebanon survived, though sectarian loyalty certainly deepened. What aren't debatable contentions are that 100,000 people didn't survive, nearly another million were displaced, and one of the world's premier jihadist networks, the still-powerful Hezbollah, was born. These aren't footnotes, and I have a feeling that the participants of the Cedar Revolution would never dream of treating them as such.

So, yes, an Iraqi civil war--which could be as bad as, or even worse than, Lebanon's civil war--really is the end of the debate about whether the decision to invade Iraq was justified. (As TNR editorialized a year ago: "Iraq's political future could well be decided by guns rather than ballots. If another dictator murders his way to power, or the country dissolves into violent fiefdoms, the war will have proved not just a strategic failure, but a moral one as well.") Sure, something would follow a civil war, but our enterprise won't and shouldn't be judged by that far-distant outcome. Instead, it should be judged by the path that led, under U.S. auspices, to widespread sectarian violence.
It is also worth noting that withdrawal or major troop reduction would undermine the "flypaper" rationale/benefit. If our troops are really engaging jihadists that would be on our soil but for the fight in Iraq, how wise would withdrawal or removal to distant bases be? Especially since we have managed to turn Iraq into the most expensive school for terrorism on the planet, only to threaten to remove the hall monitors. Not to mention what such declarations are doing in terms of emboldening terrorists and insurgents. Why just last week the House passed a resolution condemning calls for withdrawal from Iraq before a "free and stable Iraq have been achieved" - claiming such proclamations were sustenance for our enemies. Either someone didn't get the memo, or we have a new definition of "free and stable" to consider.

The Withdrawal Method

Despite the recent noise regarding withdrawal and/or troop reduction, not everyone is buying it. Bob Herbert wrote a recent column in which he claims that the Bush administration still intends to reatin a garrison in Iraq to maintain control over the vast oil reserves in that nation - what was, according to Herbert, the main impetus for the invasion in the first place. Herbert in
his own words:

The point here is that the invasion of Iraq was part of a much larger, long-term policy that had to do with the U.S. imposing its will, militarily when necessary, throughout the Middle East and beyond. The war has gone badly, and the viciousness of the Iraq insurgency has put the torch to the idea of further pre-emptive adventures by the Bush administration.

But dreams of empire die hard. American G.I.'s are dug into Iraq, and the bases have been built for a long stay. The war may be going badly, but the primary consideration is that there is still a tremendous amount of oil at stake, the second-largest reserves on the planet. And neocon fantasies aside, the global competition for the planet's finite oil reserves intensifies by the hour....Many high-level government figures believe that U.S. troops will be in Iraq for a minimum of 5 more years, and perhaps 10.

That should be understood by the people who think that the formation of a permanent Iraqi government will lead to the withdrawal of American troops. There is no real withdrawal plan. The fighting and the dying will continue indefinitely.
Some ordinary Iraqis interviewed for an article in the Washington Post concurred with Herbert's cynicism (via Swopa at Needlenose), while others were holding our feet to the fire in anticipation of the withdrawal:

"The Americans' statements are always untrue," said Ali Abed, 50, a taxi driver standing in a 1 1/2-mile-long line for gas. "We are fed up." [...]

"They destroyed the country, and now they say they want to leave," Abed said. "Let them go to hell, not to their home."[...]

"The Americans want to glue together all the parts they broke, to shape it back as a real, new country. But you cannot bring back what you broke as it was before -- everyone will be able to see the break marks," said Jamal Hindawi, 42, at his Baghdad paint shop. "They just want to leave, even if everything will come apart after they go."
Which prompted this response from Swopa:

Regarding the cheering and flowers once predicted to greet our soldiers when we invaded Iraq, I speculated a year and a half ago that "We'll see them when we leave." But maybe not even then, it looks like.
There is, however, the possibility that the talk of disengagement is part of a strategy to put pressure on some of the ethnic/sectarian groups and other political cleavages. Under this theory, the majority Shiites and Kurds have been taking certain liberties, or indulging in some political over-reaching, safe in the knowledge that they don't need to forge real compromises because the US military is there to maintain the peace while they each try to grab as much power, oil, territory and other spoils as possible. In light of the difficulties the tripartite group of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds are having in coming to a consensus over the drafting of a constitution (due date August 15, 2005), the announcement of an imminent withdrawal of US forces could be viewed as providing an incentive for the various factions to redouble their efforts to arrive at a common understanding. By making public our intentions to disengage, we reclaim some leverage with groups that otherwise treat us with hostility and indifference. I discussed the shifting of leverage at length in this post.

The counter to this theory would be that the Sunnis would not necessarily be motivated to compromise by our announcement, but could in fact be encouraged to hold out further. Despite the effect on the Sunnis, the parties in need of making concessions are the Shiites and Kurds so any move that increases the Shiite/Kurdish willingness to reach out to the Sunnis is probably a positive. To the extent that they can be included in the political process, Iraq's chances of averting a civil war are increased.

Nevertheless, this talk about ulterior motives, faux withdrawals and permanent garrisons of US troops to keep watch over the oil in Iraq obscures one dimension of the current dynamic that shouldn't be ignored: regardless of what we would like to do, stay or go, our ability to remain in Iraq indefinitely will come down to a decision to be made by Iraqi leaders operating under some sort of majoritarian rule in which most Iraqis would like to see us exit stage left. As
James Dobbins noted in an article in Foreign Affairs:

The only factor that unites Muslim fundamentalist mujahideen, secular Baathist holdouts, and Shiite extremists is their desire to expel American forces--a goal that a majority of the Iraqi people seems to share, too.
A recent piece by the Carnegie Endowment's Nathan Brown (pdf) as posted by Praktike, sheds some light on the peculiar balancing act currently being attempted by the Shiite ruling parties who are not ready to send us packing, but must contend with a decidedly less patient populace - not to mention the sentiments of the Sunni minority.

Al Jaafari and members of his coalition have their own domestic political reasons to favor haste: They are anxious to turn the interim government into a regular one, further empower the country’s parliament (which they are likely to dominate even after new elections), and remove all provisional aspects of their current positions. In this sense, many of the country’s Shiite leaders have been fairly consistent, working to empower structures of majority rule (since they are in the majority).

Neither Shiite nor Kurdish leaders are ready to join calls for a timetable for withdrawing foreign forces. Both show some embarrassment about the extent of their security dependence on the United States by proclaiming that they want foreign forces to leave as soon as possible, but they also insist that discussion of the subject is premature and that drawing up a timetable is inappropriate in the midst of raging violence. The sensitivity of the subject explains why committee members have given very few public comments on the matter.[...]

Moreover, even if most Shiite and Kurdish leaders are in no hurry to have the United States leave, virtually all Sunni leaders feel quite differently. Indeed, to the degree that the Sunni opposition has formed a clear demand, it is for the withdrawal of foreign forces. Those Arab Sunnis who have begun to participate in drafting the constitution have obviously dropped their demand that the United States withdraw before the constitution is written, but they have exposed themselves to severe criticism for doing so. And although some Sunni leaders have made clear that they will work for full electoral participation in any future balloting, none has indicated that they are content to have the United States stay, even temporarily.

Thus the presence of foreign forces may be dealt with obliquely (perhaps by having parliament approve treaties), but a clear dynamic has arisen: Those favoring the continued presence of U.S. and other troops are politically dominant but rhetorically on the defensive; they are unlikely to wish to call attention to their position more than is necessary.[emphasis added]

So even our allies are forced to downplay their support for our continued presence, while those opposed to our being in country openly flaunt their position. That is not exactly fertile ground for establishing permanent bases and long term military presence - regardless of what the ultimate plan is as envisioned in the White House. But then again, when you're dealing with the rare genius of President Bush, pedestrian concerns such as indigenous support, historical precedent, cultural proclivities and logistical capacity are immaterial. Such is the artist's temperament.

(In the next parts I will look, in further depth, at the potential Iranian influence in Iraq, the constitution drafting process, the impact withdrawal would have on our strategic interests as well as other contours to the withdrawal story)

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