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How To Get Out of Iraq

This post from late last night was perhaps overly cryptic. Apologies -- I was a bit traumatized by the kidney stone scenes from Deadwood -- let me try to be clearer. Here's what I'm trying to say. I think that what we ought to be doing in Iraq right now is moving toward ending the US military presence there. This is, I take it, what most liberals think at this point. But it seems clear to me that framing the case for this in the terms I usually hear from my comrades-in-arms "everything is terrible! we're losing! Abu Ghraib! abandon all hope!" is destined to certain failure as a political strategy. On the one hand, it turns voters off. On the other hand, insofar as the debate is engaged this way, the Bush administration (the only people with the actual power to end the war) will be forced for political reasons to take the opposite line, since withdrawing the troops on those terms would constitute an implicity admission that the war policy was a mistake. Now since I do think the war policy has been grossly mistaken, there's nothing I would like better than such an admission. But even more than a "gotcha!" political moment, I would like to see a good forward-looking policy implemented.

I was trying to suggest an alternative rhetorical strategy that I think will have more success. The troops should be brought home because insofar as it's possible to succeed in Iraq we are, in fact, succeeding. Whatever threat was posed by Saddam Hussein is gone. Elections have been held and future political and policy outcomes are in the hands of the Iraqi government. The insurgency is waning to some extent, and it's level of popular support is clearly limited to the Sunni Arab minority. The new government security forces are beginning to perform tolerably in some key areas. Therefore, it's time to start bringing our troops home. To what extent things ultimately work out in Iraq now depends largely on factors outside of American hands -- a combination of dumb luck, and whether Iraq's new political class does or does not manage to hash out a bargain that will be reasonably acceptable to most Iraqis. The creation of such a bargan will, if anything, be facilitated by the knowledge that the US military won't bail the Shiites out of trouble created by unwarranted intransigence, and that Arab nationalists need not fear an indefinite occupation.

This is a form of argument that will, I think, appeal to the center of the American electorate (the folks who say the war wasn't worth fighting, but that Iraqis are better off than they were before the war), the anti-nation building instincts of many conservatives, the policy objectives of doves, and would allow us to extricate ourselves from the situation while minimizing further harms to the credibility of the United States as a military force. I don't like to bust out Vietnam analogies, because the situations are different in tons of ways. But George Aiken was quite right to maintain that "declare victory and go home" was a better formula for ending the war than was a McGovern-style "all is lost! America is bad!" kind of approach.

Most Americans and many people inside the administration (and inside the broader conservative movement) would really like to see the war ended. But most American (and everybody inside the administration) would also like to see the war won. But "winning" hinges in large part on one's definitions of the goals. Those of us who think the best thing to do, all things considered, would be to start bringing the troops home need to frame our policy objectives in this light. Withdrawal not as an admission of defeat, but as the spoils of victory.

March 21, 2005 | Permalink


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I loves me some Deadwood!

Posted by: flip | Mar 21, 2005 12:06:47 PM

Not only that, but it does fall into the trap of being perceived as anti-Iraqi and desiring our troops to fail. And worse, it is almost certain that Iraq will improve over time. This is known as regression to the mean, and also known as, there will come a point at which it can't get anyworse, and indeed it will get better. Also known as, throw enough time, money, and lives into it, and it will improve.

When that happens, we don't want the only narrative to be that George was right.

Posted by: jerry | Mar 21, 2005 12:18:56 PM

Here's what I'm trying to say. I think that what we ought to be doing in Iraq right now is moving toward ending the US military presence there. This is, I take it, what most liberals think at this point.

Sure, but that's not what will happen once the insurgency quiets down. Rather, that will allow us to go ahead with permanent base construction. The administration doesn't want to leave. They want to dominate the Middle East.

Posted by: bobo brooks | Mar 21, 2005 12:21:03 PM

Ah, I see, but in that case, no particular pressure is required. The Bush administration is not going to be reluctant to defer to Iraqi forces wherever possible or draw down American troop strengths where possible.

Reducing American forces as the Iraqi forces strengthen and the insurgency wanes is exactly what the administration is going to do anyway. This is not like Vietnam, because there's no dividing line, no DMZ, no possibility of Vietnam-style peace accords (not to mention which, we all know how well that worked out). In fact, use Vietnam as an analogy/cautionary tale and you're certain to have a large enough U.S. presence remaining to serve as a guarantee against a violent overthrow of the fledgling Iraqi government--which, face it, is probably a good idea. Having 100,000 in Iraq involved in day-to-day security is one thing--having five or ten thousand on rural bases is probably wise (and probably something that any new Iraqi govt will desire).

Posted by: mw | Mar 21, 2005 12:23:41 PM

We need to praise the Bushies more and pretend that their policies are succeeding - then they'll appreciate it and start doing what we want. Yes, good plan, I see it now: it'll certainly work.

Posted by: abb1 | Mar 21, 2005 12:28:32 PM

What Matthew is essentially arguing is to "declare victory" and go home. And as much as I'd love to do that, I'm not sure the facts on the ground will permit it to do us in a way that any member of the public will buy. Support for the Sunni insurgency is growing within the Sunni quarters. Sunni rejectionism is becoming the preferred strategy of that increasingly alienated group, and the situation in Kirkuk and northern Iraq is tilling a fertile ground for a lasting Sunni insurgency against the shiites and Kurds who have become their masters.

The problem with using this argument to get our troops home is that it is an argument against the facts. If we claim that the insurgency is "waning" when what really seems to be happening is that it is returning to a baseline activitiy from before the elections, this will be fairly quickly discredited by the steady and constant stream of casualties we see (both American and Iraqi). At which point we will look like fools or worse to the American public.

Unless Matt believes that it's possible and desirable to sell the Americans bullshit while telling them it's chocolate fudge (and i don't believe Matt means this) I can't see why taking this kind of dishonest tack is a particularly good strategy.

Posted by: Teaser | Mar 21, 2005 12:38:25 PM

Just as the Bush administration is not going to unilaterally withdraw from Iraq and admit it was all a mistake, the liberals worst nightmare is that the democracy succeeds is Iraq and spreads to neighboring countries, and that Bush goes down in history as the president who triggered the long term reform of middle east governance.

That is why Ted Kenney and his ilk are demanding immediate withdrawal from Iraq. They hope it returns to a brutal dictatorship so they can say “I told you so” and set about cutting military and intelligence budgets.

Posted by: Robert Brown | Mar 21, 2005 12:59:23 PM

The GOP creates its own reality and feeds it to their base who greedily and cheerfully accept. If declaring victory in Iraq and disengaging fit their purpose, I'm convinced they would do so in a heartbeat. So what is their purpose? Oil? Is that a misguided policy considering the geopolitical ramifications? I think so. Where would we be now if, in March of 2003, we decided to invest 200+ billion dollars in alternative energy?

Posted by: lugbolt | Mar 21, 2005 1:05:42 PM

Were it up to me I would frame it as since the Repubicans do not want to enlist to fight this war we are forced to withdraw

Enlistment is down 30%, we can't fight this war.

Posted by: Alice Marshall | Mar 21, 2005 1:09:24 PM

****"Where would we be now if, in March of 2003, we decided to invest 200+ billion dollars in alternative energy? "*****

We would have $200 billion in pork to help get politician elected and little or nothing to show for it.

Posted by: Robert Brown | Mar 21, 2005 1:27:12 PM

Bladder stones not kidney stones

Posted by: mlhm5 | Mar 21, 2005 1:27:45 PM

Sorry, I remain a hawk on the war. "War." Sistani has quietly hinted that a "presence" is not an occupation. We had a half million+ troops in Europe for my entire youth. I just read Martin Kramer(via praktike) on two strands of Shiite thinking, resistance and democracy. And the very important counter to Sunni extremism. I guess this rambles, but my essential point is that Wolfowitzian Transformation is still very much on.

The "war" is won when there are no more attacks on American troops by Arabs/Islamists. When the universal attitude toward those troops and bases resembles the attitude Germans had toward American bases in 1960....good source of income, please don't leave.

I mean, y'all who turned against the war after favoring it, was it all about WMD? Not for me, it was about enraged kids with boxcutters. Can't get rid of boxcutters. What is it about Arabs and/or Islam that makes them so different from the Germans and Japanese? Why can't they become indifferent to our presence? They can & will. And the internal conditions that make them indifferent are of unspeakable benefit to their lives and futures.

I do wish we were paying for in taxes instead of debt. And I note that we are building a terrific battle-hardened non-com & officer corps to train the draftees.

Anyway, I think we are attacking Iran this summer, which will kinda affect your withdrawal notions.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Mar 21, 2005 1:30:14 PM

Bravo Robert Brown's ability to reads Ted Kennedy's mind! Though the rest of his comment lacked nuance the power of his mind is breath taking.

Success of the neocon agenda is not liberals worst nightmare. Our worst nightmare has already happened - that despite Bush administration gross incompetence he was reelected. I still wake up screming in the middle of the night about that one.

But we don't fear W. Bush's success. Remember, Poppa Bush was successful beyond anybody's wildest dreams and we were able to unseat him. The faster we declare victory in Iraq the faster we can go back to competant, Democratic governance.

Posted by: LowLife | Mar 21, 2005 1:38:23 PM

Sorry, I remain a hawk on the war.

No need to apologize, Bob. Everybody has a flaw and I guess that's yours. I will say that you do more credit to your side of the argument than anybody else I've read. But I doubt that the "Wolfowitzian Transformation" can continue without the sort of commitment that you (and, I think, you alone) expressed before shot one was fired in anger in Iraq.

Posted by: LowLife | Mar 21, 2005 1:47:00 PM

Why? What happened on Deadwood? I didn't see it, I was busy watching Spring Break Shark Attack.

Posted by: Adrock | Mar 21, 2005 1:50:56 PM

I was kidding. Anyway....

> That is why Ted Kenney and his ilk are demanding immediate withdrawal from Iraq.

Ted Kennedy proposed the exact same withdrawal that the military proposed not 3 days after he said it. Funny you should ascribe to him that position, as its was basically the position of the miliary. Bring 10-15K troops home as an indication of our intentions with the Middle East, namely that we don't plan on staying.

Or do you think that was a bad idea?

Posted by: Adrock | Mar 21, 2005 1:58:02 PM

We ain't goin' anywhere, though. Look at the price of oil yesterday, today, and tomorrow. What about Iran nukes? What about "safeguarding the democratic progress that has been made in the region?"

We may be able to "Babylonize" the war and wind down our forces, but only so that they can remain out of sight more, securely on our new bases, but ever ready to defend "freedom in the sands."

Once Bush got the cretins in Congress to give him the green light on the war gambit, he holds the initiative and the cards.

Declaring victory won't be construed as a reason for withdrawal, but for moving forward with the next phase of imperial colonization, instead.

Besides, who besides the American electorate would believe the neocons if they claimed victory, what with no security and no essential services?

Plus, Bush has proven to all Caesar's invidious pretenders that WAR sells with the American plebes. Whoever gets elected in 08, it will be because they're seen as being "strong on Defense." The masses want blood and plunder, and throwing our weight around gives us that thrill of potency that is the one thing our treasury can still afford to provide, for the moment.

My prediction is no pullout before 2050.

Posted by: Liberal Elite | Mar 21, 2005 1:59:09 PM

The only problem with "declaring victory and going home" of course is that it sets us up for another baseless war in the long term while simultaneously rewriting history (again) to cast America in the character of, if not the hero, than the blameless protagonist who wanted everyone's good, but couldn't help the circumstances and the hapless result. And history -- or the lack thereof -- marches on. Crikey.

Posted by: Crikey | Mar 21, 2005 2:01:48 PM

As long as your watching Deadwood, you should make an effort to watch Carnivale, which I think is a better show. In fact, I think its the best show I've ever seen.

Posted by: The Bobs | Mar 21, 2005 2:26:27 PM

What is it about Arabs and/or Islam that makes them so different from the Germans and Japanese? Why can't they become indifferent to our presence? They can & will.

I see no basis for this assumption. Iraq is not Germany. Why didn't the Vietnamese become indifferent to our presence after 10 years? Why didn't the mujahadeen just get used to the Soviets in Afghanistan?

Posted by: David | Mar 21, 2005 2:46:35 PM

Bob, you're making parallels with the post WWII occupation of Germany, but it seems (for a variety of reasons) that Japan would be a better analogy. Well, here it is: "Rebuilding Iraq: Japan Is No Model,"

Posted by: abb1 | Mar 21, 2005 2:49:41 PM

In 2008, if you say something like "the bases seem to have a permanent nature," then you will not win.

Posted by: Chad | Mar 21, 2005 3:30:12 PM

"What happened on Deadwood? I didn't see it"

I watched Deadwood closely, and still don't know what was going on. The bedroom banter between the whore and Hearst's representative might as well have been in Mandarin.
Abu Aardvark cites an al-Jazeera poll that ranks political reform ahead of Israel/Palestine in ME important issues. A defense of extraordinary engagement in the ME would involve a book, or several books, and many blog posts. They are out there. There are different opinions on how it should be done. I couldn't begin here, even were I qualified.

For the record, the initiative has been horribly mismanaged by people I consider as radically evil as any you might name from the last century. And although I can really admit to little direct responsibility, I still beg forgiveness for the unnecessary carnage and destruction. As an American.

The question arises, given the monsters in charge, should I have still supported the war. I answer yes, but when Shinseki said it would require 300k more troops, Democrats should not have voted for the war and let Bush handle it.
They should have been screaming, screaming for tax increases, a draft, and a million troops, saying publicly that Bush's cowardice and parsimony would cost hundreds of American lives and thousands of Iraqis. If that had been the party position in 2002, I believe Dems might control congress and would certainly have the Presidency.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Mar 21, 2005 3:59:07 PM

Ah, you're just hoping against hope that we'll cut and run before the job is done, because that way Republicans get the blame for things going to Hell in a handbasket, instead of the credit for things working out in the end.

I don't think you're going to get your wish.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Mar 21, 2005 4:37:10 PM

Bob, that would have had the Republicans, again, promising cake and ice cream, while the Democrats promised 'blood and toil, sweat and tears'. Unfortunately (with the aid of the modern mass media, and the modern US version of Christianity), cake and ice cream will win any day.

Posted by: Barry | Mar 21, 2005 5:15:17 PM

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