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First Things First

A little while back I had a -- to me -- frustrating exchange with Greg Djerejian about drawing down troop levels in Iraq. Greg, or so it seemed to me, wasn't really engaging with what I was saying, instead preferring to argue that I somehow didn't really mean what I said I meant and to talk smack about Bill Clinton's foreign policy [UPDATE: somewhat naturally, he disputes this characterization -- see his earlier posts and read for yourself; for context, my initial post on the subject was more directed at people to my left, so it's kind of different in tone from a post like this which is aimed at the other side]. His latest effort helps me achieve some clarity as to what we're disagreeing about. But to be clear from the get-go, one thing we're not disagreeing about is the merits of the Clinton Bosnia policy, especially during the first term. The relevance of this point escapes me, but Greg keeps bringing it up. What I'm trying to talk about is what we should do now in Iraq. Greg writes:

Approximately 138,000 troops in theater through the New Year at least looks to be a certitude. Thereafter, and only if conditions allow (ie, Sunni participation in nascent political governance structures moving in right direction; insurgency continuing to weaken) only then would there perhaps be major draw-downs in '06. Compare this to Matt Y and the Prospect-y crowd that advocates drawing down, say, 20,000-40,000 (my best guess of what Matt has in mind; though he doesn't deign to clue us lumpenproleteriat in to the 'right' quantum) of the forces in theater with some immediacy.
Ah okay. I don't have a really specific view about the appropriate short-term troop level. What I would say is this. It's vital to establish a commitment to long-term withdrawal, which would have the following elements: No permanent bases, a target date for zeroing out the American deployment, and a set of feasible benchmarks for interim withdrawals. This commitment should be combined with a non-trivial short-term withdrawal as a token of good faith and bona fide commitment to the plan.

Now to be clear, I don't want to see a precipitous, panicky, running away here. That means, to me, that you need to go about setting the long-term date the right way. I would suggest something like this. Condoleezza Rice and her staff make a guess about when a zero troop level situation will be viable. Call that Date X. Then add some months onto Date X and call that the Optimistic Target. Then add some more months to the Optimistic Target and call that the Final Target. There are Iraqis who are nervous about our intentions on both sides. Some worry that we'll never leave and Iraq will become some kind of West Bank writ large. Others worry that we'll abandon our Iraqi allies too soon, they'll be overrun, and meet the fate of the South Lebanon Army or some such thing. You need a date designed to alleviate both of those fears. One far enough in the past as to give confidence that it isn't merely an effort to weasel away, but one firm enough as to give confidence that the need to battle the insurgency isn't merely an excuse for indefinite occupation. One can add that even after the Target is reached, the Iraqi government will continue to have (if it wants) serious financial and diplomatic support from the United States as well as support from the U.S. intelligence community and low-footprit assets that can be kept in the air, in the sea, or in outer space and that will give Iraq's security forces a clear qualitative edge over whomever they may be fighting. A short-term withdrawal is important largely for somewhat symbolic purposes -- to make it clear that as Iraqi troops are trained, American troops will be sent home, and that the whole process is on the up-and-up.

The problem with the Djerejian/Bush strategy is encompassed by the statement "if conditions allow (ie, Sunni participation in nascent political governance structures moving in right direction; insurgency continuing to weaken) only then would there perhaps be major draw-downs in '06." What's wrong with this? Well, what's wrong with it is that if you make Sunni participation in nascent governance structures (which is necessary for the insurgency to really weaken) a condition for moving toward withdrawal, you're not going to get Sunni participation in nascent governance structures, and therefore you're never going to withdraw. Right now we're trapped in a vicious circle. Sunni participation is a condition for withdrawal, but withdrawal is a condition for Sunni participation. Somebody needs to make the first move here and get us out of the trap. In an interview yesterday with The New York Times, Sheik Harith al-Dari "made clear that he would continue to view the armed resistance as legitimate until the American military offered a clear timetable for its withdrawal - a condition very unlikely to be met." This view is rather typical of moderate Sunni Arab views in Iraq. There are, to be sure, extremists (espcially foreigners) in the country who just want to wage war against Americans and Shiites. And there are also nice cuddly moderates like Pachachi. But the al-Dari types are the key constituency. They will support a battle against an American occupation, but not a battle against a new, independent, Iraqi order. If there the insurgency is to be beaten, we need Sunni participation. If we want Sunni participation, we need al-Dari and his ilk. And if we want them, we need a plan for withdrawal as part of an intercommunal compromise.

March 29, 2005 | Permalink

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» Ask And Ye Shall Receive from THE BELGRAVIA DISPATCH
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Time to talk turkey with the estimable Matt Y re: troop levels in Iraq. He writes: Ah okay. I don't have a really specific view about the appropriate short-term troop level. What I would say is this. It's vital to... [Read More]

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» Iraq: Troop Levels from THE BELGRAVIA DISPATCH
John Burns, reporting on the major counter-insurgency operations underway in Baghdad: The violence, including at least four suicide car bombings, was a bloody start to an operation that Iraq's new Shiite-majority government had presented as a new get-... [Read More]

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Comments

So you advise setting a date in the past for troops withdrawal? Are we also going to set a date in the past for time machine invention?

This is petty, but fun.

Posted by: washerdreyer | Mar 29, 2005 11:22:48 AM

Matt writes "Others worry that we'll abandon our Iraqi allies too soon, they'll be overrun, and meet the fate of the South Lebanon Army or some such thing. You need a date designed to alleviate both of those fears. One far enough in the [*]past[*] as to give confidence that it isn't merely an effort to weasel away, but one firm enough"

I think you mean "future" where indicated.

Posted by: David Margolies | Mar 29, 2005 11:24:35 AM

Thanks Matt. I've found lately that arguments on the internet are bad for my blood pressure. It's a real relief to read a lucid, logical, good-faith argument on a tricky subject, even if I don't quite agree with it. (My own views are closer to "US Out of Iraq Now!")

Keep it up.

Posted by: lemuel pitkin | Mar 29, 2005 11:31:52 AM

"This is petty, but fun."

You'll make a helluva lawyer.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 29, 2005 11:34:17 AM

Nice commentary but do you and Greg D. agree on why the US troops are there right now, the reason that they are there in Iraq, the purpose/s, if any, that they are serving in whatever foreign policy we do or do not have with regard to Iraq?

Or, are you making the argument that having 130,000 troops in Iraq is simply unsustainable in the long run, and therefore they should be brought home?

Or, are you making the argument that having 130,000 troops in Iraq is actually counterproductive with regard to our foreign policy in Iraq? If so, what is our purported foreign policy in Iraq? Should appropriate force levels be a policy in and of themselves, or linked to policy objectives in Iraq?

The way I read your post just now, it seemed to be a big premise that "troops home" is better than "troops abroad."

Posted by: hyh | Mar 29, 2005 11:52:34 AM

Others worry that we'll abandon our Iraqi allies too soon, they'll be overrun, and meet the fate of the South Lebanon Army or some such thing.

Who are these 'Iraqi allies'? Get the hell out of Iraq now.

Posted by: abb1 | Mar 29, 2005 11:57:33 AM

sorry, didn't read the commentary after the jump. So it appears that you, MY, fall into the "our troops being there is counterproductive" camp. But that still begs the question what is productive with regard to our policy objectives. If our troop presence is really important as a symbol of our intentions, then are 80,000 any better than 130,000? Will our declaration of an exit plan seve as symbol to make Iraq a success with regard to our foreign policy objectives there? And at what point does the symbolism give way to our real interests in Iraq, both at the stated level (to keep the peace and foster security for democracy, etc.) and the unstated level. This is the Bush Administration after all and we shouldn't take very much at face value.

Posted by: hyh | Mar 29, 2005 12:01:53 PM

The Iraqi Government needs to set a timetable for U.S. withdrawal, and the U.S. should accept that timetable.

The Iraqi Government's legitimacy depends on their taking this action. The game vis a vis Sunni moderates will take on a very different cast, once the Iraqi Government is committed to standing on its own.

This is an obvious point.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Mar 29, 2005 12:05:02 PM

"Who are these 'Iraqi allies'?"

Largely the Kurds, who shouldn't be abandoned without warning.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 29, 2005 12:08:43 PM

Largely the Kurds...

I don't think the Kurds are necessarily 'allies'; they are potential beneficiaries or potential victims. Well, I suspect that another slaughter of Kurds is, unfortunately, inevitable, but some say their 'peshmerga' (which, apparently, is the current Iraqi Army) is strong enough to defend them. In any case, they don't need US troops there to prevent a massacre, it can be prevented by various other means.

Posted by: abb1 | Mar 29, 2005 12:24:01 PM


My sense of why Greg is always bringing up the Bosnia/Clinton issue because his intended audience for many of his national security posts are "national security Democrats" like myself and perhaps you, Matt, who believed in earlier US/NATO military intervention to stop genocide in Bosnia. That's why he was wondering a few days back if his readership was mostly Democrats. His argument/audience seems largely with us.


Posted by: Laura | Mar 29, 2005 12:24:23 PM

it seemed to be a big premise that "troops home" is better than "troops abroad."

Other unstated premises of MY's post:

- Living people are better than dead people.
- Self-government is better than foreign occupation.
- A republic is better than an empire.
- Peace is better than war.

Posted by: lemuel pitkin | Mar 29, 2005 12:27:56 PM

I just thought I'd be anal-retentive and point out that "good faith" is a direct translation of the Latin "bona fide," so it's redundant to use both.

Posted by: Chris Meyer | Mar 29, 2005 12:36:53 PM

Why even have this debate? This Administration has no intention of "bringing the troops home." It never has had that intention. Permanent basing is the neocon goal, and always has been. Oh sure, the Administration knows this is unpopular, so it gives lip service to force drawdowns. But you won't see any real movement in that direction until a new Administration takes charge.

Posted by: Kenneth Fair | Mar 29, 2005 12:41:12 PM

Why not let the Iraqi government make these decisions in their own time? It is not their place to decide whether or not committment to a firm date for withdrawal and a guarantee that there will be no permanent bases is desirable or not?

Perhaps they will conclude that setting such a date would be critical for bring Sunnis into the process. Or maybe they'll decide that an indefinite coalition committment is actually the way to go--in that it will convince the Sunnis that no route to regaining power by force or threat of force can ultimately succeed and, therefore, that the only path available is peaceful politics. I tend to think the latter is more plausible and that setting a firm withdrawal date and committing to no permanent bases (whether the Iraqi goverment likes it or not) would be grave mistakes that would encourage the ex-Baathists to bide their time and keep their powder dry (and hidden). But, that said, I would be perfectly happy to see the coalition defer to the judgement of the elected Iraqi government in these decisions.

Posted by: mw | Mar 29, 2005 12:48:45 PM

> UPDATE: somewhat naturally, he disputes this
> characterization

Matthew,
Why would you have any belief that anyone who works with (much less for) the Radical Right would correctly and honestly characterize your argument? They have only one mode of operation: ATTACK! And really only one tactic with many variations: lie, distort, strawman; lie, distort, strawman.

It is sad that they are winning, but to not acknowledge that there is no such thing as a rational discussion with anyone within a mile of the Radicals is to commit suicide.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer | Mar 29, 2005 12:55:39 PM

L. Pitkin said: "Other unstated premises of MY's post:

- Living people are better than dead people.
- Self-government is better than foreign occupation.
- A republic is better than an empire.
- Peace is better than war."

Precisely! The point is that we should be arguing the big picture with the folks on the right, not the details that flow from the arguments that they have framed.

Perhaps detailed debate to the extent of troop levels is the stuff on blogs and web commentary, but progressives should be trying to articulate big picture alternatives to current Iraq policy, such as regional solutions and initiatives?

But the issue of troops pulls on Democratic heart strings and so off we go. So, this really is a roundabout comment about how the Dems will never be taken seriously until we can articulate meaningful, reality-based, foreign policy alternatives. Oh, the alternatives are out there at Carnegie and CFR and FP, but the debate doesn't seem to interest the left-leaning blogosphere.

Because grand strategy is more abstract and less compelling than GI Jane? Because Dems are cowed (out of their depth) by right wing foreign policy hardliners? Because Dems don't think that foreign policy resonates with "ordinary folk?"

Whatever the reason, it reflects poorly on the left in this country.

NB: I consider myself to be left-leaning. So everything above applies to me, is my fault even. Woe is me! Where's my latte?

Posted by: hyh | Mar 29, 2005 12:58:12 PM

Matt, I am increasingly skeptical that any coherent and effective majority of Sunnis plan to participate in the nascent government structures, American presence or no. I think many of them would simply like to get the Americans out of the way so that they will have a freer hand to organize their militias and mount attacks on Kurds and Shiites.

The Association of Muslim Scholars seems to respond to evolving facts on the ground much more than it directs or influences them. However, I notice that even in the NY Times article you cite reporting on an interview with Sheikh al-Dhari - an article that is mostly full of background, with precious little actual interviewing - there is nothing reported about the Sheikh's expectations for Iraq following an American withdrawal.

Two recent articles, one by
Tom Lasseter of Knight Ridder, the other by
Thanassis Cambanis of the Boston Globe present a bracing view of the evolving situation. The crucial line for Cambanis's account:

Increasingly, terms like "insurgency" and "anti-Iraqi forces" favored by American officials here fail to fully describe much of the violence. Iraqi politicians say the worst violence is being carried out by Sunni fighters against Shi'ites and Kurds -- both civilians and those who work for security forces backed by the Iraqi government.

It may, then, be wishful thinking to believe that a believable commitment from the US government to an American troop withdrawal or draw down will be the first step toward the stabilization of the country - although I agree it is worth a try. The most hopeful of several scenarios might be the tenuous possibility Lasseter describes that three Sunni provinces in central Iraq will decide to form a unified bloc so as to wield a "Sunni veto" over the new Iraqi constitution under the TAL, and be able to exert some influence over the course of the new government:

Some Sunni leaders have floated the idea of creating a federation of three Sunni provinces, which, under a clause in the nation's transitional law, could veto any constitution passed by the Shiite- and Kurdish-dominated assembly. But even that's been stymied by infighting among Sunni politicians and tribal sheikhs, some of whom consider any political engagement, even a veto, a tacit acknowledgement of the government's legitimacy.

Their failure to participate in the elections has already handicapped the Sunnis so severely that many of the more politically inclined may conclude they are simply too far behind to secure a meaningful role in the new Iraq via the established political process. And as Lasseter notes, many are simply too rejectionist to accept any cooperation with the US-midwifed government, and are willing to take their chances with violent struggle against their Iraqi rivals.

Perhaps the best way to achieve Sunni political unification would be the "leaking" of a US government internal document purporting to show that the US and Israel are actually seeking Sunni disunity. It appears the only thing that will bring Sunnis together and make them do X is the belief that the US and Israel want the opposite of X.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Mar 29, 2005 1:02:45 PM

Well, hyh, my post was really intended as sarcasm. But it's nice to see a rude comment mistaken for a polite one for once, instead of the otehr way round as usually happens.

And come to think of it, none of the four premises I listed would have been accepted by most upper-class Europeans 100 years ago.

But I won't be much help in this discussion since my view on foreign policy is, I'm against it. My preferred US government would adopt a strict hands-off policy toward the rest of the world.

Nor do I buy Matt's argument that Democrats need to "get serious" about foreign policy to win elections -- I think he's guilty of the pundit's fallacy on behalf of his own preferred brand of liberal internationalism. In fact old-fashioned protectionism/isolationism plays quite well at the polls, as I am moderately hopeful we'll see in some not too distant election.

Posted by: lemuel pitkin | Mar 29, 2005 1:17:01 PM

I think the real problem is with the contemplated timeline. MY is speaking of 2006 troop drawdowns, but it seems to me that 2012 is a pretty rosy scenario for the first significant drop in troop levels.

Posted by: etc. | Mar 29, 2005 1:26:32 PM

For some reason, I think Petey's comment may have been a backhanded compliment.

Posted by: washerdreyer | Mar 29, 2005 1:30:14 PM

Unlike Bush I actually think promoting democracy is a good idea. More flexible in absorbing cultural and political change and passing power from one generation to the next. But expect the early years to be messy. And putting our thumb on the scale in the heavy-handed way we are doing in Iraq will result in reactionary counterforces when we leave. The sooner the better. Iraqis must work through their differences without our skewing the results. Iran is closer to true democracy than Iraq.

The problem for Bush's new pro-democracy stance is that it entails encouraging democracy even if it is anti-American. This was NOT the neocon or conservative Republican position a year ago. Welcome to Carter's foreign policy. Do the neocons truly think in 100 years Iraqi textbooks will write of Bush as some hero?

Posted by: epistemology | Mar 29, 2005 1:49:53 PM

I vote for 2050.

Yes, without assuming the Sunnis have a more idealistic position toward "freedom" than their counterparts, why do they want us out of there? What do the Iraqi Sunni gain from the US leaving? Obviously they are presuming, with help from their Saudi and Jordanian friends, they can regain power or at least create chaos.

You are presuming the Shia & Kurds won't negotiate in good faith with the Sunnis til we are gone? Awful presumptuous, tho possibly true. The Sunnis in the area simply believe a Shia Iraq is not acceptable, as they believe a Jewish Israel is unacceptable. And until a Israeli mother and daughter in shorts can shop in Riyadh, or Najaf and Medina have Imam exchange programs, I want troops in the area. Bunches.

I read several dissident Syrian blogs. They are scared witless, and trying to sneak into the relative safety of Lebanon. Syria is not so far from collapse, and potential bloodbath.

"You broke it, you buy it." You favored this war, and what we broke with it was the Middle East, and we stay til it is fixed.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Mar 29, 2005 2:17:32 PM

Yesterday, Brad Plumer posted a link to an article titled "Five Bad Options for Iraq" in Survival, published by the International Institute of Strategic Studies, and authored by Daniel Byman, non-resident senior fellow at the Saban Center at Brookings.

Byman concludes:

There are no good options in Iraq, only less bad ones.

The current approach is both costly and headed for failure.

Improving our odds with a dramatic escalation is not feasible, while cutting our losses through a complete withdrawal would be catastrophic for Iraq, the region and the United States.

Going toward an overt counterinsurgency strategy may be necessary for a chance of victory, yet force protection concerns, a lack of troops, the time involved to establish the right force mix, and a broader unwillingness to make the necessary sacrifices make it unlikely that this option will truly be adopted.

If the United States will not pay the costs, it must recognise the painful reality that it should set its sights lower.

Regardless of whether the United States stays the course or draws down, developing Iraqi forces should be a top priority.

Since Byman is saying clearly what many or most people believe (there are no good options), the analysis isn't too surprising.

But as Matt says, there are benefits to making a strategy on force levels more clear. In my mind, the key issues are permanent bases and declaration of strategic intent:

- Nailing down the crucial question of whether we intend 'permanent' bases in Iraq would clarify all sorts of decision-making in Congress (funding levels, manpower planning (draft?), etc, as well as removing the permanenet bases issue from the list of concerns of Iraqi and others who are convinced the US has imperialist or anti-islamic aims for Iraq.

- We must make it clear that Iraq must stand largely on its own for internal and external security at some point in the not-distant future. As long as as the US blurs this question by not having a known policy, those who want us to leave will distrust that we will leave, and those who want us to stay indefinitely will fail to put in place their own force structure for security.

I get uncomfortable about a policy of 'vietnamization' of the context of Iraq, but the hard facts are that we can't sustain a force this large for the long-term, and even if we could it is counter-productive both in Iraq and elsewhere in the region.

Byman makes clear what we are doing now isn't working (duh!), so some change in direction is required. Drawdown seems like the best and perhaps only viable option.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Mar 29, 2005 2:26:31 PM

We're stuck. The government we set up will be hopelessly deadlocked. Our "allies" in the Gulf don't want a Shiite dominated government and are quietly financing the Sunni insurgency and allowing foreign jihadists to go over the border from Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Remember that Jordan supported Iraq in the first Gulf War and was the biggest smuggler of Iraqi oil during the sanctions period. Syria, as much as we like to paint them as evil, was on our side during the first Gulf War and is ruled by Baathist Shiites. We're really not too thrilled about a Shiite government friendly to Iran. It will be really interesting to see what happens if the Kurds and the Shiites stop arguing long enough to ask us to leave. Will we refuse?

Posted by: Freder Frederson | Mar 29, 2005 2:28:23 PM

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