Thursday, February 08, 2007

Jumping Someone Else's Train

As readers may or may not be aware, I have thus far refused to advocate for an all out withdrawal from Iraq, primarily out of fear of the instability that might erupt upon our exit. The conflict in Iraq could very well spark a regional war that would necessitate our return to Iraq and its environs in large numbers at some point during the next decade. You see, that's where the lion's share of the world's oil supply is, and last time I checked, we kind of need that black stuff to keep flowing. And by "we" I mean the entire world - not just the United States. The magnitude of Bush's folly boggles the mind.

Along those lines, I was, and have been, a fierce opponent of the invasion since well before it began. It's just that I would like to ensure that when we leave Iraq this time (since we're there regardless of my earlier efforts), it will be the last time.

With the specter of a regional conflagration in oil country looming on the horizon, I have tried to ponder some form of duct tape and chewing gum approach that could in some way manage the crisis such that - while the conflict would roil - it would be kept within certain acceptable limits (I use "acceptable" in the most cynical way acknowledging the unthinkable suffering that would still ensue). Not that the Bush administration would recognize such a plan, or adopt it, if it were laid at the doorstep of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. A fool's hope perhaps.

But if we could muddle through, I thought, to some semblance of stability - however unsatisfying in terms of realizing the grandiose goals that attended our "shock and awe" introduction - perhaps we could, in the end, lessen the eventual bloodshed. To some extent I believed that our presence was having that effect, at least initially - that we served as a bulwark between warring factions.

Now, I'm afraid that we are no longer serving that function, if we ever were, and for this, and a host of other reasons (set forth below), I see no option other than withdrawal - though I remain open to plans for redeployment of troops to certain sensitive areas (or remote areas depending) in order to continue the attempt to keep the lid on the cauldron as part of the withdrawal process.

Long time coming, I know, and it's not like anyone was waiting with bated breath for me to take this final step. But still, I take it for the record, and to the extent that others have been urging this course previously, I commend them for their foresight. It was just that my fear of the aftermath led me to cling to the hope that some type of mitigating factor, movement or process could emerge. From the outset, I did not imagine that a liberal, democratic, pro-American, pro-Israeli Iraq was really plausible, but there is a lot of room in between that lofty vision and the current tragic drumbeat of chaos and carnage.

If I have to hitch my wagon to any one formulation of the way out, I'd take the road paved by Steve Simon here. It's not necessarily new, but it is a comprehensive and thoughtful list; the inevitability of which can no longer be denied even by those deluded by the best of intentions [emphasis mine throughout]:

The United States has already achieved all that it is likely to achieve in Iraq: the removal of Saddam, the end of the Ba’athist regime, the elimination of the Iraqi regional threat, the snuffing out of Iraq’s unrequited aspiration to weapons of mass destruction, and the opening of a door, however narrow, to a constitutionally based electoral democracy. Staying in Iraq can only drive up the price of these gains in blood, treasure, and strategic position. Any realistic reckoning for the future will have to acknowledge six grim realities:

The United States cannot determine political outcomes or achieve its remaining political aims via military means. American military forces have not brought the violence to an end or under control and will not do so in the future. In the absence of the understanding and the intelligence needed to operate effectively in the complex and violent political situation in Iraq, this should not be surprising.

• Leaving U.S. forces in Iraq under today’s circumstances means the United States is culpable but not capable—that is, Washington bears substantial responsibility for developments within Iraq without the ability to shape those developments in a positive direction. In consequence, Iraqi support for the U.S. presence has collapsed. Polls indicate that most Iraqis want the United States to pull out. Moreover, the Iraq war has fueled the jihad and apparently been a godsend to jihadi recruiters—and the process of self-recruitment—as indicated by the 2006 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the global war on terror. More broadly, the Iraq war has had a very damaging effect on the U.S. reputation in the Arab and wider Islamic world. Authoritative opinion surveys show this as well. The continued presence of U.S. forces is thus a severe setback in the canonical war of ideas, which the Bush administration has correctly assessed as crucial to American interests.

• The ongoing war has empowered and advanced the interests of the chief U.S.
rival in the region, Iran. At this stage, the best way to regulate Iran’s attempts to exploit its advantages is to negotiate with Tehran either bilaterally or in a multilateral framework while protecting Americans in Iraq against Iranian attack.

• By siphoning resources and political attention away from Afghanistan, a continuing military commitment to Iraq may lead to two U.S. losses in southwest Asia.

• The Iraq war constrains the U.S. military, making it very difficult if not impossible to handle another significant contingency involving ground forces. It also damages the U.S. military, making it difficult for Washington to credibly employ coercive policies against others in the near to medium term even once the United States has disengaged from Iraq. Furthermore, the military commitment in Iraq impedes the U.S. ability to address other important international contingencies, in part because of the limitations of the U.S. military but also because of the preoccupation with Iraq at the highest decision-making levels. In short, U.S. interests in the Middle East and Persian Gulf region can be more effectively advanced if the United States disengages from Iraq. Indeed, the sooner Washington grasps this nettle, the sooner it can begin to repair the damage that has been done to America’s international position. Staying longer means more damage and a later start on repair.

• The implosion of domestic support for the war will compel the disengagement of U.S. forces; it is now just a matter of time. Better to withdraw as a coherent and at least somewhat volitional act than withdraw later in hectic response to public opposition to the war in the United States or to a series of unexpectedly sharp reverses on the ground in Iraq. The United States should therefore make clear now to the Iraqi government that, as the results of the anticipated surge become apparent, the two sides will begin to negotiate a U.S. military disengagement from Iraq. That would entail withdrawing the bulk of American forces from Iraq within twelve to eighteen months (that is to say, over the course of calendar year 2008); shifting the American focus to containment of the conflict and strengthening the U.S. military position elsewhere in the region; and engaging Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran and Syria, members of the UN Security Council, and potential donors in an Iraq stabilization plan.

Since the surge is a fait accompli, according to the vice president, and its results will be known very soon, in the view of General Petraeus, there is little point in proposing that negotiation of a drawdown begin immediately. ....

I even think he has the timeline right. Withdrawal "now" is not really feasible from a logistical perspective, nor would it allow us to attempt to engage the regional powers and shape the final narrative - which we must do in order to try one last pass at containment and mitigation.

This would also be the most politically opportune route for the Democrats to take, and the one most conducive to success. After the surge, press the issue with purpose and intensity - and begin to push the Obama proposal to the forefront, even if Obama's proposed withdrawal date must be delayed by a month or two. In the meantime, set the stage for lowering the curtain by focusing the debate. We must try to garner the highest level of popular support that is possible, which would in turn secure the cooperation of enough lawmakers such that we could, hopefully, reach the veto-proof majority.

The (bitterest) End.

(Big tip of the hat to the indispensable Laura Rozen)

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