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Ackerman Cuts And Runs

I was hanging out with Spencer Ackerman last night and he indicated that he was disinclined to use his blog as a forum for promoting his articles (weird, that) so I'll do it for him. In last week's New Repulic he argued (subscription only, but read it if you can) needs to "set a date for withdrawal." Spencer maintains that this is not merely weak cut-and-runnery but actually establishes the best prospects for the emergence of a democratic Iraq. I think the argument is highly persuasive, but slightly wrong. The hawks are right, I think, to say that setting a date, per se, is problematic (find a hawk to spell out the argument, it's all over everywhere). But Spencer is right to say that withdrawing soon is crucial. The best way to reconcile these views is to say that we ought to set some non-temporal benchmarks for withdrawal. But, importantly, we ought to set the bar low. Find some realistic goal that we can fairly easily start to meet within the next 3-6 months (and therefore start pulling troops out) and complete within the following 6-9 months and you achieve the advantages of "set a date" -- i.e., making it clear that we intend to go home, and soon, without giving the game away to the insurgents.

After that, it's by no means a foregone conclusion that good things will happen in Iraq. It would depend on whether or not the new government is smart, decend, and broadminded. But it will depend on that anyway, and it'll be easier for it to happen if we're in the business of leaving rather than in the business of pissing people off by occupying the country and meddling in Iraqi politics in order to get our precious, precious bases. The big contribution the US can make to Iraqi stability is in making sure that the other Sunni-dominated governments in the region continue not to back the insurgency. That's something that doesn't require us to be occupying Iraq in force and, indeed, could probably be more easily done by demonstrating (demonstrating -- by leaving -- not just saying) that this isn't a long-term plot for American military domination of the Middle East.

February 12, 2005 | Permalink


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This is where support for Bush will slide toward its natural level. "Support our troops" has held it well above that point. I'm watching for the chickens.

Posted by: John Isbell | Feb 12, 2005 2:58:06 PM

Speaking of his blog, next time ask him why there's no RSS feed available for Iraq'd.

Posted by: mc_masterchef | Feb 12, 2005 3:12:12 PM

Liberal Oasis had a very good post somewhat on this theme, and on the politics of it:

. . .The Senate Dem leader Harry Reid is trying to lay down a policy principle that the bulk of the party can accept: "we need an exit strategy so that we know what victory is and how we can get there; so that we know what we need to do and so that we know when the job is done."

While this approaches the heart of the matter, it doesn’t make clear what fundamentally separates Dems from GOPers on Iraq, and foreign policy in general.

Simply saying there should be an exit strategy makes the debate seem like a question of technical competence, when there is a deeper ideological gulf between the parties that needs illuminating.

As George Lakoff says, “know your values and frame the debate.” So what are our common values in this case?

There’s a reason why there is no GOP exit strategy. Because the GOPers don’t want to leave.

They want permanent military bases in Iraq.

And we don’t. That’s the difference. . .

The fundamental line that separates the Bushie neocons from everybody else is:

Should Iraq policy be based on desire for US military, political and economic control of the Gulf region (which fosters resentment that harms our national security)?

Or desire for peace, stability and true self-determination for the Iraqi people (which fundamentally enhances our long-term national security)?

Dems and liberals may still be split between “Withdraw Now” and “Withdraw Later” factions.

But that’s tactics. We are not split by motivations and intentions. . .and that’s far more important.

Posted by: roublen vesseau | Feb 12, 2005 3:12:47 PM

So what about the bullet Ackerman never quite bites in that article: Are we supposed to set a withdrawal date, and/or really low performance thresholds, against the express wishes of the newly elected government? So we'll just say, "look I know you guys think you'll be sliced up if we leave, but in our judgment its the best thing for you. Sure, you're the elected representatives and all that, but our analysis of the latest Zogby poll of Iraq public opinion and this here 'man on the street' interview by Anthony Shahid makes us confident we have a better grasp on the situtation than you do. Naturally you'll bow to our wisdom after due consideration, since Washington DC pundits and officials have showed such a startling grasp of Iraqi subtleties so far." That seems on its face absurd and stupefyingly arrogant.

If the elections mean anything, surely it means the Iraqis have the initiative. If they want us out by January 2006, fine. If they want us to stay longer, I see no honorable way to refuse.

Posted by: rd | Feb 12, 2005 3:18:26 PM

I don't see why we couldn't do the Afghanistan thing where we leave an "over the horizon" force in Iraq indefinitely. And I don't see why we can't have permanent bases in Kurdistan forever.

But we really ought to be not doing all of the things that Iraqis say annoy them, such as driving 100 mph and pointing guns at people all of the time and so forth. The negotiation over the SOFA will be an important one to watch, but AFAIK Spencer is the only one watching it.

Posted by: praktike | Feb 12, 2005 3:23:43 PM

Following the SOTU, I heard a radio interview with Tom Delay (I heard it on KPCC in Los Angeles, around 11pm, sorry I don't have more specifics). Delay was asked if we should start removing troops from Iraq, and he responded that with the ongoing problems in Iran, Syria, and, if I remember correctly, Jordan, it would be irresponsible to leave Iraq. I don't recall anyone else ever stating so bluntly the intention to use Iraq as a regional base of operations.

Posted by: pseudosophist | Feb 12, 2005 3:23:57 PM

rd: I'd say the answer is that we cannot legitimately stay against the wishes of a real Iraqi government, and they cannot legitimately demand that we stay against the wishes of our government. Yes, we have some moral (and strategic) obligation to support a government that we've set up and rebuild a country that we invaded, but that does not mean they have a claim to keep us there indefinitely.

Posted by: Redshift | Feb 12, 2005 3:50:09 PM

Of course, we have the *right* to leave whenever we want. But as to the question of whether we *should*, it seems that most are arguing for bugging out on the grounds that its best for the Iraqis. But if that's the criteria we're using, to do so against the expressed opposite opinion of the elected Iraqi government seems incredibly arrogant and wrong.

Posted by: rd | Feb 12, 2005 4:02:15 PM

I think you are correct that we should honor the Iraqi elected government view, whether that means stay or go. A problem arises though when the Iraqi Shi'ites, who find the US presence much less desirable than the Iraqi politicians, figure out that their own leadership whom they elected on #169 have no plans to ask the US to leave. (By and large the Kurdish people and politicians want us to stay, the Shi'ite people want us gone but the Shi'ite leaders are not confident in their ability to protect the country yet and so want the US to stay for now, and the Sunni Arab people and leaders vehemently want the US to leave. Polls repeatedly show large majorities of the Shi'ites want the US to leave right now - and up until the very end, the #169 politicians campaigned precisely on the promise of US withdrawal). The problem here is that not pushing for US withdrawal empowers the Sadrists and other hard-liners among the Shi'ites to take the initiative and demand the US to leave. I would have thought before today, BTW, that the Sadrists were so marginalized as to not even matter. But as the results from the local council elections come in it appears that Sadr actually gained significantly in Shi'ite areas and still has a very strong base of support. If, in the end, the Shi'ite dominated government is paralyzed over the occupation question then the insurgents will undoubtedly sieze the moment and de-legitimize the newly elected government. This is a very precarious issue and one in which the United States has very little positive control.

Posted by: Elrod | Feb 12, 2005 4:42:53 PM

Rumsfeld set a new low bar on his visit to Iraq last week:

He declared that it will be "up to the Iraqi forces to defeat the insurgents".

Get that? He has given up the idea that US forces are going to defeat the insurgents. He is now saying that we are going to retire from the field with the insurgency still undefeated.

Of course, everyone outside of the Republican lie-machine has always understood that insurgencies are not the kinds of things that you "crush in Fallujah". But anyone who said it out loud was immediately branded a traitor, an America-hater, and so on.

As usual, the Bushies talk big to begin with, then make a mess through their own incompetence and short attention spans, then start weaseling out, and then tell you that the cop-out was their plan all along. Oh, but meanwhile they brand everyone else "traitors" for telling the truth about the inevitable.

So if you're wondering about benchmarks for withdrawal, we now know that the defeat of the insurgency has gone from a pre-condition for departure, to a little tidying-up we'll leave behind for the Iraqis. You heard it from Rumsfeld.

Posted by: Tad Brennan | Feb 12, 2005 4:47:43 PM

I remember someone (in the administration, I think) asserting that we were not going to let any other nation or organization of nations tell us where or how to use our military. Why then are we saying that, of course, if a government in Iraq asks us to leave, we will leave? To be consistent, you would expect us to leave only if we could be sure that Falluja (e.g.) were not going to be a haven for terrorists.

Posted by: Barry | Feb 12, 2005 5:07:05 PM

Politics is policy. The GOP know that withdrawing will be catastrophic for GWB's poll numbers. See GHWB, or Churchill in 1945. You guys are all busy looking at Iraq. GWB would happily screw Iraq, but cannot.

Posted by: John Isbell | Feb 12, 2005 5:36:56 PM

Benchmark: When the Iraqi forces we're training are actually capable of taking over from us. Since we're talking about an army essentially created from scratch, that's going to take a couple of years, though with declining forces on our part as they ramp up.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Feb 12, 2005 6:23:02 PM

I don't know where the idea comes from that the Iraqi government to be wants the U.S. to stay. There are elements in the UIA that have said that to Western reporters, but Ackerman's article is right -- majority opinion among both the Shiite and Sunni groups, according to the most pro-American NGO around, the IRI, are overwhelmingly in favor of a time table. Plus the UIA, until the last week of the election, made that a campaign pledge. Plus, as Ackerman pointed out, Moktada Al Sadr is waiting in the wings to take that position if the UIA reneges on its heavy hints.

So here's the opposite question: what if the new government wants the U.S. to leave, and the Bush people don't want to leave? What then? When the likes of C. Hitchens, who is surely connected to neocon circles in D.C., says "we won't let the new government set up an Islamic state" -- is that a hint of what is coming?

Posted by: rorger | Feb 12, 2005 6:40:27 PM

Ya know it wasn't that long ago that many here were predicting an Allawi victory (tho it ain't over yet, with Allawi and I think Rumsfeld trying to deal with the Kurds). Or predicting that a new Shia gov't would ask for immediate withdrawal.

Why don't we just stop predicting? What are the odds of aggressive action against Iran in the next year, and how will that change the situation in Iraq?

And what Ackerman or Yglesias or Reid say or think are good ideas matter squat to Bush.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Feb 12, 2005 6:54:55 PM

I tend to agree that Democrats should stop trying to predict events in Iraq; They don't even seem to be able to predict how American voters are going to react, why should they think they have some special insight into Iraqi motivations?

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Feb 12, 2005 9:32:06 PM

The Democrats do need to have a clearly expressed policy--that's a necessity in terms of defining ourselves, rather than letting the Republicans define us all the time. I agree also with the person up thread who said the Democratic policy should be rooted in a valid moral or ethical stance (I'm paraphrasing).
So the question is,"What is the ethical thing to do?" I didn't support the invasion but I have always felt that the you-broke-it-you-bought-t point of view had merit. However I don't think we have the right to fix things the way WE want them. We have an obligation to leave things the way the Iraqis want them.
As someone upthread pointed out, Bush has never wanted a democracy in Iraq. He wanted an American -contolled government that could be used in the future for attacks on other Middle Eastern countries. That's why he tried to install Chalabi, that's why he tried to impose a caucus system, that's why Allawi was picked, and that's why he wanted Allawi to win. But Allawi didn't win.
Bush's dilemna now is how can he justify staying idefinately while pretending that he really wants to withdraw? Our dilemna, as ethical citizens, is how can we help the Iraqis achieve the goal they want for themselves? I am assuming that the Iraqis want in independent country that is not an American client state. The Shia leadership has requested that US troops stay,but only for a limited time and for a limited goal. I don't know if they have spoken on the issue of bases or Halliburton's control of their oil fields.
It seems to me that Reid's suggestion is the best one because the benchmarks could be negotiated with the new Iraqi leadership. The benchmarks could be a way of assuring that our involvement is on their terms and suits their needs.
I hope they will refuse to keep bases in their country and I hope they will want us to leave soon. My own feeling is that only by our (planned, gradual) departure can their government or their armed forces be seen as fully legitamate by their people. I suspect that over the next year Bush and the Shia leadership will be increasingly at odds as they seek independence and he tries to keep them dependent.

Posted by: lily | Feb 12, 2005 10:41:09 PM

"Since we're talking about an army essentially created from scratch, that's going to take a couple of years, though with declining forces on our part as they ramp up."

Let's think about that. It isn't enough for iraqi troops to replace US troops, since our troops aren't actually accomplishing much. How many iraqi troops will it take to more-than-replace 150,000 coalition troops?

Various people have explained that a US soldier doesn't reach full competence until after 2 years of training. But iraqi soldiers are fully trained after 8 weeks of training, and something like half of them have gotten that 8 weeks. How would they compare to us?

US troops use only vehicles that have some armor, and have lots of air support. The iraqi military is not scheduled to get much armor at all and no airforce. Their infantry gets inferior body armor when they get body armor at all, and when wounded they will use the iraqi hospital system.

How effective will the iraqi army be at fighting, compared to ours? Will 240,00 of them match our 30,000 combat troops? Let's say they will.

Around 2/3 of our troops are busy carrying supplies for the rest. Add in the other noncombat functions and you get 30,000 combat troops out of 130,000 troops. But the iraqi army hasn't started doing its own supply. They're completely dependent on our supply. If we got 300,000 iraqi troops to effectively replace our 30,000 combat troops, our casualties would hardly go down. Because a whole lot of our casualties are from that 2/3 of the army that's running supply. And that would if anything increase -- to support 300,000 combat troops instead of 30,000 would take *more* supply. (Or would it? With no armor and no airforce, they wouldn't have nearly as many spare parts etc to transport. A lot more water, more food, maybe more small-arms ammo.)

How long will it take them to be an effective army if we haven't started training them to do their own supply? And how many of them will it take to do supply? 2/3? Can we give them an 8-week supply course?

The plan was never to train an independent iraqi army. The plan was to train iraqis who'd wait at checkpoints for suicide bombers and who'd search mosques for us. And maybe drive our trucks. We needed an iraqi army to do the things that take the high casualties so we wouldn't have to. We might start training an iraqi army that could get military victories without us, but we haven't started yet.

Posted by: J Thomas | Feb 13, 2005 12:12:26 AM

Shorter Matthew: CUT AND RUN!!! Just don't make it so obvious.

One wonders why the Left can't understand why the majority of the country doesn't trust them with national security.

Posted by: Al | Feb 13, 2005 12:16:54 AM

What do the US troops control in Iraq? Are they actually providing security for the Iraqi people? These are not rhetorical. Reading the mainstream corporate news, it's hard to know. And i haven't read enough alt news on the subject.

but from what I have read, it seems like they (the US troops) can barely protect themselves at times. Aren't most of the basic services (trash pickup, etc.) being run by the Iraqi people and by the mosques?

If the US troops are not doing anything for the Iraqi people, and their presence is making things worse, shouldn't we withdraw them sooner than later? if they left, they couldn't leave any more anarchy then there already is, right? how legitimate are the concerns of civil war if we leave?

Posted by: Phil | Feb 13, 2005 5:01:49 AM

But, J, you lefties are always harping on how our very presence as foreigners is the cause of the insurgency, right? So if we leave, the Iraqi army should be facing a much smaller insurgency, RIGHT?

Can't have it both ways, after all.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Feb 13, 2005 9:05:14 AM

Phil, you're right that the US military is not able to provide any direct security for iraqis.

What we can do, though, is first we attack insurgents whenever they try to take a city permanently. Whenever they stand and fight we can call in artillery and airstrikes and kill them (and destroy whatever buildings are near them and whatever civilians are cowering in the buildings). And second we get tips about insurgents hiding among the civilians, and we send out goon squads who break down doors in the middle of the night and kidnap the people we think are insurgents so they can be held without trial and interrogated. Third, we sometimes intervene when insurgents are attacking; since they can't stand against us their attacks don't last as long as they might otherwise. Fourth, in relatively peaceful areas we pay iraqis to do reconstruction. The military budget for that is maybe 1% of the USAID budget for reconstruction, but there's so much less red tape that it probably amounts to more than half the progress. (This is a guess on my part, I can't document it.)

We no longer do checkpoints. What that service does for iraqis is it utterly disrupts traffic, and it requires insurgents carrying weapons to route around the checkpoints -- which slows their transport. It gave iraqi citizens, men women and children, a chance to get patted down by US troops, and if they made a mistake that looked suspicious they got killed. The trouble was that when we stood around at checkpoints we were targets. So we've offloaded that to the iraqi army, and now the casualties at checkpoints are iraqi casualties.

We mostly no longer patrol the roads in our armored vehicles. For awhile the rule was that iraqi vehicles had to stay away from our vehicles; since they might be car bombs we shot them up if they got too close. And we tended to drive down the middle of the road to avoid the IEDs on the sides. It was too hard for iraqis to be sure what we'd kill them for, so now the rule is that when they hear us coming they have to pull over and stop their cars until we're well past. Needless to say this disrupts traffic even more than checkpoints. And the patrols didn't do much for us except draw fire. So now the iraqis get those benefits when we need to go somewhere, but otherwise we don't do that kind of patrol.

We've started getting reports of troops getting killed on actual foot patrols. We didn't used to get many of those; something has changed but I don't know what and I don't know why we'd be doing foot patrols at all; they'd predictably get soldiers killed.

We used to do search missions where we'd block off a square block or 4 square blocks with razor wire and then go in and search every house. We'd confiscate whatever weapons we found and any large sums of money, and kidnap people who looked suspicious. Oh, and we tended to kill the dogs. This was of course vastly unpopular among iraqis who prefer to keep their money at home since they don't trust the banking system which hasn't really gotten on its feet yet, and they need a few weapons for household defense. And of course they don't like getting their dogs shot any more than you would. I don't know whether we've quit that or not; it makes sense we would have quit since it takes a lot of people and gets minimal positive results. The main hope would be to discover an insurgent explosives cache. But these days if we found it there's a strong chance it would be booby-trapped. So it's better to send in iraqi soldiers to check for insurgent caches.

The US role in iraq is pretty much that of the 400 pound gorilla. We can do whatever we want and if they try to stop us we can whap them. They can do whatever they want provided they do it quick and hide, or provided we don't notice. But if we do notice and we don't like it and they're still hanging around we'll whap them.

Posted by: J Thomas | Feb 13, 2005 10:01:23 AM

Brett, I'm not a lefty. I'm not to the right or the left. I'm in front.

Yes, the US presence is the cause of the insurgency. But that doesn't mean it's the cause of all the violence. If the US wasn't there it may be that the various iraqi militias would fight each other. Or they might sit down and negotiate. One gun, one vote. Particularly when there are a lot of militias, why fight one of them when the result is you're both weaker relative to all the rest?

What makes it an insurgency is that the US is backing our chosen government and we've said we're going to lock out the people we don't like. So there's an official government to fight, and the US military to fight. That's what makes it an insurgency; they're fighting us and fighting the government we put on them. If we weren't there it wouldn't be an insurgency, it would be a civil war. And it might flare up or die down -- no way to be sure except to do the experiment.

Posted by: J Thomas | Feb 13, 2005 10:13:10 AM

Boy, I like that Ackerman/Yglesias idea for cutting and running. Get the US troops out, and let the Iraqis decide how they want to run Iraq.

It should take most of the steam out of the insurgency. Especially if Sistani makes a clear break with the US, as he seems fully capable of doing. Without US troops in country, the chances for peace and democracy in Iraq go up exponentially.

The only problem, as bob macmanus pointed out upthread, is that George Bush cares squat about what we think. I'd go a couple of steps further -- George Bush cares squat about what anyone thinks, if they're not in his inner circle. He also cares squat about what is the right thing to do, in any kind of objective sense.

Pace Yglesias, this war in fact was about permanent bases in Iraq -- any other long term doesn't really make any sense considering how things have played out -- and Bush is a stubborn enough guy that a little thing like losing a war isn't going to dissuade him from reaching his objective.

Posted by: litho | Feb 13, 2005 12:05:24 PM

Yes, the US presence is the cause of the insurgency.

What planet are you on? The "cause" of the insurgency is the desire of some Baathists to regain the control of Iraq that they had for the last 30+ years. That's not going to go away if the US leaves.

The only thing that will happen if the US leaves is that there will be no one capable of preventing the Baathists from regaining control. But that is, I suspect, what most of the people opposing the US presence in Iraq really want.

Posted by: Al | Feb 13, 2005 12:35:56 PM

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