Friday, December 08, 2006

But What Would Be the Answer to the Answer, Man?

Commenting on a Matt Yglesias post, Kevin Drum offers this observation on the "reason" we should withdraw our troops from Iraq:

As Matt himself pointed out a year ago in "The Incompetence Dodge," the main argument for withdrawal is a simple acknowledgment that the U.S. military can't solve Iraq's problems — and never could. As he put it, "No simple application of more outside force can make conflicting parties agree in any meaningful way or conjure up social forces of liberalism, compromise, and tolerance where they don’t exist or are too weak to prevail."

Matt is right. And Kevin is right in saying that Matt is right. Others have argued, convincingly, that the mission to create some tolerant, peaceful, liberal, democratic regime out of the ashes of a 'shock and awe' invasion was a bridge too far. I agree completely, and have written as much myself on more than one occasion. Any pundit, politician or government official that proposes an invasion for these misguided reasons again should be dismissed, disregarded and ignored. Then again, I didn't buy it the first time around.

If one were to ask me whether "victory," as defined by the Bush administration, in all its lofty, improbable grandiosity, is possible at this point (at least possible as a result of our continued military presence in Iraq) I would not hesitate to answer, emphatically, no.

But does that answer really respond to all of the relevant questions that could be asked about our continued military presence in Iraq at this time? In other words, if we accept as a premise that "no simple application of more outside force" can compel the Iraqis to embrace liberal democracy and make the concessions necessary to end the conflict in the near term, is the only logical conclusion, then, that we should withdraw all of our troops as soon as practically possible?

It might just be the only logical conclusion, but there are other factors to consider. For example, could our continued military presence forestall the eruption of a broader regional war and resulting disruption of the world's oil supply? Is that calamitous outcome likely to ensue post-withdrawal? Would we have to re-deploy troops to Iraq in the near future if that were to occur?

If so, would it then be worth it to maintain some form of military presence in Iraq now and, relatedly, should we adjust our force posture in the region to mitigate the negatives and maximize the positives associated with this mission?

If we consider the nightmarish scenario mentioned above likely to occur, then we need to grapple with a new set of criteria for assessing the costs and benefits associated with some form of continued presence in Iraq vs. withdrawal. This is a morally unsatisfying business I admit, and it represents a significant adjustment of the goal posts. Fighting and bleeding for these less-than-sentimental reasons isn't exactly the stuff of inspiration. However, such a cause could be vitally important nonetheless. And what's the point of pulling out of Iraq if it means we'll be back in three years regardless?

It would be much easier, and gratifying, to disregard the concern that Iraq could morph into a situation that is actually worse than it is now, and instead opt for what appears to be the neat and tidy option of pulling out all of our troops now. But the easy way is rarely as advertised.

Critics are right to point out that there is no pony to be found in any of the plans to right the course in Iraq in terms of magically creating a stable, peaceful situation devoid of conflict and bloodshed. But withdrawal promises no ponies either - and could actually worsen an already terrible situation. As usual, it comes down to choosing the lesser of two evils.

I don't have all the answers yet, but I think that the issue should be framed like this, rather than in terms of whether or not we can succeed along the lines of the Bush administration's pre-war prognostications. That question was answered - in the negative - many months ago.

The problem is, now we need an answer to the answer.

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