Ending the War in Iraq

A trio of progressive foreign policy experts, John Podesta, Ray Takeyh and Lawrence J. Korb, make their case for withdrawing our forces from Iraq. Political progress isn’t fast enough:

Yet even despite the loss of nearly 1,000 American lives and the expenditure of $150 billion, the surge has failed in its stated purpose: providing the Iraqi government with the breathing space to pass the 18 legislative benchmarks the Bush administration called vital to political reconciliation. To date it has passed only four.

The present U. S. strategy in Iraq is self-defeating:

Moreover, as part of the surge, the administration has further undermined Iraq’s government by providing arms and money to Sunni insurgent groups even though they have not pledged loyalty to Baghdad.

Things might not turn out as bleakly as some have suggested if we do withdraw:

The prevailing doomsday scenario suggests that an American departure would lead to genocide and mayhem. But is that true? Iraq today belongs to Iraqis; it is an ancient civilization with its own norms and tendencies. It is entirely possible that in the absence of a cumbersome and clumsy American occupation, Iraqis will make their own bargains and compacts, heading off the genocide that many seem to anticipate.

Our presence in Iraq reduces our alternatives for dealing with other pressing problems:

The strategic necessities of ending the war have never been more compelling. In today’s Middle East, America is neither liked nor respected. Iran flaunts its nuclear ambitions, confident that a bogged-down Washington has limited options but to concede to its mounting infractions. Afghanistan is rapidly descending into a Taliban-dominated state as the Bush administration responds only with plaintive complaints about NATO’s lack of resolution. And the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is nowhere near resolution.

They’d rather spend the money on other things:

A Democratic president would also be wise to realize that perpetuating the war conflicts with a robust domestic agenda. At a time of mounting deficits, when we are spending about $10 billion a month in Iraq, issues such as reforming the health-care system and repairing the national infrastructure are likely to remain neglected. The United States has too many national priorities that cannot be realized if yet another beleaguered administration prolongs this costly and unpopular war.

I’m having a little difficulty in relating their means to their ends. For example, I don’t see how the U. S. withdrawing its forces from Iraq will increase the rapidity with which the present Iraqi national government is able to hammer out political agreements or shore up the Iraqi national government.

It’s possible that removing our forces from Iraq would give us additional alternatives in facing down a nuclear-armed Iran since we wouldn’t have all those U. S. soldiers in easy striking distance of an Iranian attack. But we’d still have all those large bases and ships that will be within harm’s way. Unless they also advocate withdrawing those, would we really have more options than we do now? I’d like to see them flesh this argument out a little more for me.

Is there a reason to believe that we’d be spending more on national infrastructure but for our troops in Iraq? The state of Minnesota, a relatively prosperous one, clearly wasn’t willing to spend enough to keep its bridges from falling down. It’s unclear to me how removing our forces from Iraq will convince the citizens of Minnesota to spend more on their own infrastructure nor that it will convince the people of California, Texas, Florida, or New York to spend more on Minnesota’s infrastructure. I’d like to see them flesh this one out a little more, too.

The one incontrovertible fact about the situation in Iraq is that fewer innocent Iraqis are dying there now (not to mention fewer of our own soldiers) than were six months ago or a year ago. I don’t know whether that’s post hoc propter hoc, the result of something we’re doing, or the result of something the Iraqis are doing but I think that it’s a good thing and I don’t want things to go back to the way they were before. But that’s a risk that I guess Messrs. Podesta, Tayekh, and Korb are willing to take.

30 comments… add one
  • I’ve said before that these various “withdrawal,” “ending the war,” and other strategies seem largely divorced of any larger context, policy or strategy for Iraq and the region. The calls for withdrawal are more based on domestic considerations than actual US foreign policy interests, especially since so little is said about strategy beyond the withdrawal portion.

    In light of that, the two Democratic candidates should consider what this guy has to say.

  • I always find those who equate “ending the war” with “U. S. withdrawal” uncritically distressing. I’d like to see a little more support for the claim since it flies in the face both of recent experience and my own intuitions about human behavior.

  • Yeah, the whole “ending the war” annoys me to no end. The arrogance inherent in that statement is pretty amazing – it’s only a “war” when the US is involved and if the US withdrawals then that somehow magically “ends” the war.

  • Dr. Friedman wrote another piece about turning Iraq into a buffer state that I can’t locate ATM. This idea seems like it could be a valid policy since it’s unlikely Iraq could counterbalance Iranian power as it did prior to 2003.

    Actually, I think this might be it.

  • This idea seems like it could be a valid policy since it’s unlikely Iraq could counterbalance Iranian power as it did prior to 2003.

    It’s a bit of a digression from my post but I frequently wonder if Lawrence wasn’t right and that, while an Arab superstate of the sort that he proposed may have been of concern to the Brits, it would have been a better choice for just that reason.

    In the “Twin Pillars of Defense” policy that prevailed for 25 years it wasn’t necessary since a friendly KSA and a friendly Iran under the Shah were envisioned as providing stability for the entire region in resisting Soviet influence. That collapsed 30 years ago when the Shah fell and we’ve been struggling with the consequences of the Brits’ original decision ever since.

  • Hi Dave,

    You do a good job of deconstructing the holes in the withdrawal argument here. But then again, Andy Sullivan has a hard look at Cordesman and does the same for the argument to stay.

    Andy, you write that “The calls for withdrawal are more based on domestic considerations than actual US foreign policy interests,” but isn’t it always the case that US foreign policy is domestic policy inflicted on foreigners? The G. Friedman article you cite certainly says so – that the policy is usually independent of the facts but that the facts determine the success or failure of the policy.

    I’m personally for withdrawal because I don’t believe the US can help accomplish or drive forward the massive to-do list that’s still outstanding even if violence is back to 2005 levels. Even by holding the violence down indefinitely. At some point, US foreign policy has to realise that Iraq’s self-determination will largely continue as Iraqis decide – perhaps even by fighting it out – and not to the tune of US policy or national interests.

    Regards, C

  • As I’ve mentioned before, Cernig, I thought the invasion of Iraq was imprudent and I would favor withdrawal if I thought that the consequences of withdrawal to the Iraqis, the region, and to our own foreign policy were less grievous than the consequences of our staying.

    But, apparently unlike most, this is a subject that I believe intelligent people can differ on. It’s a judgment call rather than a dogma.

  • Dave,

    Even if the money we’d save (roughly 10-12 billion dollars…a MONTH!) wouldn’t be spent on infrastructure directly, it is extremely important for Americans to free up money for any number of exigencies. Be they entitlement programs, or veterans care. Even if it is just a matter of corraling the soaring debt and deficit levels.

    Continuing the occupation has enormous costs. We’re talking several trillions if we stay as long as those opposed to withdrawal advise.

    Also, strangely absent from your analysis, is any mention of the strain on our military. Not only is retention of our rightly-valued officer class hurting, but we’ve been periodically lowering standards for new recruits in order to maintain some proximity to recruitment goals. The lowering of standards, and loss of experienced officers, erodes the cohesion and effectiveness of our fighting forces.

    Ten or twenty years more of that spend and strain for the slight chance that we can find some deus ex machina seems like a poor investment. Granted, leaving might not improve the chance for political reconciliation, but staying might not either. Actually, neither likely will. That is up to the Iraqis regardless of our presence.

    As for other foreign exigencies, Iran is not the only one. There are others, some that we can identify, some that we cannot. There’s one that we know of, however: Afghanistan.

  • The problem is, Eric, that neither one of us knows that’s what would happen. The contingency cost argument is only sound if you can demonstrate that the money would in fact be used for all the things you’re suggesting.

    As to the strain on our military, every post isn’t on every subject nor does every post cover subjects I’ve covered in detail before nor even link to them. This particular post is pointedly a response to the column cited in the post and the column doesn’t mention that argument so I didn’t, either.

    I believe that we’ll be reducing our forces in Iraq starting in a couple of months and proceeding over the next six to nine months to either the pre-Surge level or, as I’ve predicted, to a somewhat lower level—something like 80,000. It won’t be for strategic reasons or political ones or because the situation has improved or because it has degenerated. It will be because it’s logistically required.

    I also believe that whoever is the resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in February of 2009 we’re going to have a substantial number of troops in Iraq and will for most of that president’s administration at the very least or for the foreseeable future. I’m with Anthony Cordesman on this. Neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton will end up removing our troops from Iraq should either become president. I wish the political rhetoric would adapt itself to the course of action we’re likely to take.

    BTW, you probably should take a look at my post on the logistics of increasing forces in Afghanistan. The long and the short of it is that we’re not going to be increasing the size of our forces there a great deal come what may and we’d best get used to the idea of accomplishing what we can with a small footprint force.

  • The contingency cost argument is only sound if you can demonstrate that the money would in fact be used for all the things you’re suggesting.

    Not necessarily. What we know is that if the money is spent, the money will not be there to spend on anything else. We know that if we spend that money, we will either need to cut spending on other programs, or the deficit debt will go up. A trillion – or 3 or 4 – out, is a trillion or 3 or 4 out regardless of what the money would otherwise be used for. With SS and Medicare costs increasing, we will be fiscally paralyzed, or doomed to balloon the deficit/debt. I’d rather have spending options, to push for the priorities that I favor, rather than knowing that Iraq will swallow up hundreds of billions a year regardless.

    BTW, you probably should take a look at my post on the logistics of increasing forces in Afghanistan. The long and the short of it is that we’re not going to be increasing the size of our forces there a great deal come what may and we’d best get used to the idea of accomplishing what we can with a small footprint force.

    And yet we keep asking NATO for more? I don’t have time to read those posts yet, but what is your response to Gates et al, who keep asking for NATO troops? Is Gates wrong? Or are you just saying that “we won’t” add more troops, and not that “we shouldn’t.” Is it your argument that the mission doesn’t need more troops?

    I believe that we’ll be reducing our forces in Iraq starting in a couple of months and proceeding over the next six to nine months to either the pre-Surge level or, as I’ve predicted, to a somewhat lower level—something like 80,000.

    Pre-Surge is likely. Nine months out, some more reductions are possible. But 80,000 might be overly optimistic. We’ll see.

  • No, Eric, that’s a fallacy known as the Red Herring fallacy.

    I’m saying we won’t add troops in Afghanistan and probably wouldn’t whether we had troops in Iraq or not. I don’t believe there’s an achievable mission in Afghanistan other than denial of territory and we can do that with the force that’s there.

    And I have no idea why anybody in the Bush Administation does what they do. It’s always been a complete mystery to me. As I’ve written in my several Kosovo posts I think there are good reasons for us to hold back and encourage the Europeans to do more. Obviously, the situation’s not the same in Afghanistan.

  • What is the Red Herring fallacy? In reference to what?

    Just to clarify: So you’re saying that you disagree with Gates and others who are asking for more NATO troops. You think we have roughly the right amount now.

  • Example: “We need to remove our troops from Iraq so that we can spend money on national infrastructure.”

    If, once you have removed the troops from Iraq, you do not then spend the money on national infrastructure, then national infrastructure is a red herring in the discussion.

    No, I don’t think we have the right amount now. I think invading Afghanistan was an error. A politically necessary error but an error. We’ve removed the Taliban government and their Al Qaeda guests. We won’t pursue them into Pakistan to eliminate them. If we leave Afghanistan, they’ll return. We’ve achieved what we can.

    The alternatives we had were to do what we did, to remove Al Qaeda in Afghanistan by a means other than invading, or accepting their continued presence with training camps, etc. in Afghanistan. Because of the constraints involved we now have only three alternatives: keep playing whack-a-mole in Afghanistan, pursue them into Pakistan, or leave.

    Unless we plan on pursuing them into Pakistan, more troops won’t help a great deal. If we plan on pursuing them into Pakistan, we need a lot more troops (which is logiistically unsupportable) and we need to be willing to absorb a tactical nuclear strike (to which we might be moved to respond with nuclear weapons of our own), If we leave, we’re back where we were before.

    My assessment is that either we need to stay in Afghanistan forever with just enough troops to prevent Al Qaeda from re-establishing itself or we should leave, in which case the entire effort was a waste of time, effort, and manpower. I think the latter is smarter but it will never happen.

  • PD Shaw

    Wasn’t Gates call for more NATO troops in the express context that NATO was not sending qualified troops or were unduly restricting the terms of deployment. Also, that domestically many NATO countries are facing strong calls to leave Afghanistan?

    Eric might be right that this is an implicit recognition that we might be a few thousand troops short, but more interesting (to me) is the implicit notion that NATO troops and the fig leaf of multilateralism are more valuable than just any additional troops.

  • Yes, the type of troops as well as their constitution are important.

  • PD Shaw

    Here’s an article that points to one of the things I am getting at:

    “Ahead of a contentious NATO meeting in Lithuania early this month, Harper’s government threatened to bring the Canadian mission to an end if other NATO countries did not increase their contributions. . . . Galipeau said that the extension of Canada’s mission until 2011 was ‘expressly on the condition that… NATO secure a battlegroup of approximately 1,000 to rotate into Kandahar, operational no later than February 2009 . . .'”

    http://thegate.nationaljournal.com/2008/02/canada_to_withdraw_from_afghan.php

  • Their willingness to risk a likely Darfur on the offhand chance that, after all these centuries, the competing factions in Iraq will suddenly find a way to work together without coalition forces to lend stability is absolutely chilling.
    One does not find common ground with al Quaeda!

    Not only are the authors of that article frozen in time back when the prospects for the success of the Iraqi government not nearly as good as they are generally conceded to be now, but their lust for defeat bespeaks an unhealthy relationship between partisan ambition and human feeling.
    These are people’s lives we’re talking about here. It is irresponsible to dismiss them with offhand speculation about what “might” (but probably won’t) happen if we prematurely bug out.

  • Example: “We need to remove our troops from Iraq so that we can spend money on national infrastructure.”

    True, but generally speaking (which is what I was doing in my comments), it is true that trillions of dollars out are trillions of dollars that won’t be there to spend on anything. Or nothing for that matter. A multi-trillion dollar expenditure still either takes away from other programs and/or takes away funds that could be used to pay down deficits/debt (or not exacerbate them).

    I wasn’t really refuting your critique of their specific reference to infrastructure, but are you really saying that no one should discuss the financial costs because that would be a red herring unless one can say with certainty on exactly which programs the money would be used if it weren’t being spent in Iraq?

    I assume that is not your point, but that was the point I was making.

    That is: generally speaking this country will face many fiscal challenges over the next two decades. We will be in a much better position to handle those exigencies, when they arise and as they currently exist, if we have the 2-5 trillion dollars that continuing in Iraq for another 5-10 years will likely cost (give or take a couple). Simply having that money will not necessarily mean that each and every program gets attention, but it will mean that we will have the option and greater flexibility. Which is a pre-requisite if one does not want to create absolutely out of control deficits/debt.

    There is a way to talk about the extreme financial costs without constituting a red herring, no?

  • If, once you have removed the troops from Iraq, you do not then spend the money on national infrastructure, then national infrastructure is a red herring in the discussion.

    I think the point here is that the money being spent on Iraq could be better spent on any number of priorities in the U.S. It doesn’t have to be just national infrastructure. Almost any pressing domestic problem you can name would be a worthier candidate for American taxpayers’ dollars than the war in Iraq. And as long as the money is tied up in that war (as Eric said), it cannot be used for other purposes.

    I think the argument becomes chicken-and-egg, a bit. But I think it’s a mistake to let a circular argument determine whether our money is best spent on Iraq. I mean, does it really make sense to say, in effect, Hey,we might as well keep spending these hundreds of billions of dollars on Iraq, because there’s no guarantee that we would spend them on anything worthwhile at home.

    To me, that’s like saying that there’s no point in an addictive gambler spending his money on his family instead of the casinos, because there’s no guarantee he would spend his money on his family even if he weren’t spending it in the casinos.

  • Eric, I think I duplicated your point in your post immediately above mine, but they crossed in cyberspace.

  • WordsMatter

    You couldn’t find a trio as worthless as those leftists. They’ll do (and say) whatever it takes to be a part of an Obama administration. Just God-awful scumbags.

  • Their willingness to risk a likely Darfur on the offhand chance that, after all these centuries, the competing factions in Iraq will suddenly find a way to work together without coalition forces to lend stability is absolutely chilling.

    Bob, isn’t that a bit arrogant? After all, the piece of real estate currently known as Iraq has a human history that is thousands of years old. U.S. forces have been in Iraq for five years.

  • Brent

    So many slippery words. How many of you in support of staying the course are willing to put your life, the life of your spouse or the life of your child at risk. When the issue at hand is important enough for you to take that risk, then, instead of being a man of words and not of deeds, many of us will listen instead of seeing unkempt weeds.

  • There is a way to talk about the extreme financial costs without constituting a red herring, no?

    Sure. To do so there are two requirements. First, there must be a reasonable expectation that the alternatives you’re presenting are ones that actually are likely to happen and, second, you need to compare real costs rather than wishful ones. There must be some likelihood of whatever alternative you’re raising actually happening or it’s a red herring.

    A key problem in making this argument is that no foreseeable president from either party is campaigning on anything that remotely resembles withdrawing our troops from Iraq. I’ve read the position papers and listened to the speeches closely. As I understand what both Sens. Clinton and Obama are saying is that they’re proposing maintaining a high level of commitment somewhere in the region, maybe in Iraq, for the foreseeable future. That means that we’re actually contrasting $10 billion per month (the stated cost) with some presumably lower amount, say, $8 billion a month rather than zero.

  • PD Shaw

    It’s my understanding that the Obama plan is to drawn down to a residual force in Iraq or in the region which would continue to strike al-Qaeda, train Iraqi forces, defend American diplomats and military personel and in the event of genocide would potentially redeploy to protect civilians.

    From a cost/benefit analysis this only makes sense if one is optimistic that real security objectives have been obtained. Because waiting for chaos to break out and then returning to Iraq has to be the most expensive option.

  • To do so there are two requirements. First, there must be a reasonable expectation that the alternatives you’re presenting are ones that actually are likely to happen and, second, you need to compare real costs rather than wishful ones. There must be some likelihood of whatever alternative you’re raising actually happening or it’s a red herring.

    Well, the three authors are indeed advocating a total withdrawal, right? Thus, it is fair for them to discuss the fiscal benefits of a full withdrawal, even if none of the candidates have thus far signed on to such a program. The piece is couched in advice form, not prediction form.

    Also: the three authors mention infrastructure and health care in specific, but also a general catchall:

    The United States has too many national priorities that cannot be realized if yet another beleaguered administration prolongs this costly and unpopular war.

    There is a very good chance that spending will be diverted to either of the first two areas mentioned specifically, and the catchall is almost a given. Money freed up from Iraq will largely shape the scope of the spending on these priorities, much as LBJ’s domestic spending was driven by Vietnam War spending.

  • It’s my understanding that the Obama plan is to drawn down to a residual force in Iraq or in the region which would continue to strike al-Qaeda, train Iraqi forces, defend American diplomats and military personel and in the event of genocide would potentially redeploy to protect civilians.

    I don’t believe that Sen. Obama has been that specific. The “residual force” that I’ve seen in his position papers has mission that aren’t easy to distinguish from the current one but is some unspecificed number smaller. In other words, we won’t withdraw from Iraq.

    From a cost/benefit analysis this only makes sense if one is optimistic that real security objectives have been obtained. Because waiting for chaos to break out and then returning to Iraq has to be the most expensive option.

    That is, reluctantly, my position in a nutshell. The amount of handwaving from both Sens. Obama and Clinton on this is enormous. Both have mentioned the absurd and politically impossible contingency of re-introducing U. S. forces into Iraq once withdrawn if the situation warrants.

  • Ken Hoop

    Kathy, yes, the imperial condescenscion and hubris in the majority of these posts show why America is considered the most dangerous nation in the world according to world polls, our ally and albatross Israel coming in a close second.

    The real “interest” in the Middle East we have, as Americans, is one. Oil. Which will be sold to us, at market prices, no matter who controls it. As Ron Paul said, we can and should get out, come home and quit inflaming the world against us with our runaway military-industrial complex exporting our least-common-denominator world-vitiating subculture of hamburgers ,Coke and hip-hop jailbird glorification.

    If we don’t abstain from world policing, and protecting Israel’s borders-we will and should lose control of our own and cede the Southwest to a less-presumptive, however revanchist people.

    And most of the Iraqis, who have polled as desiring our depature since 2004, will chortle at our Balkanization.

  • Larry

    Pulling out is the only option. As an ordinary citizen, knowing that the
    American lives we have distroyed, the civilain llives we have distroyed have
    brought us nothing. It has made a small group of people very rich…and
    many more very poor. How long do we continue to toss our futures into
    the fire before we have nothing left to toss?

    It was a mistake to go there in the first place…how much real change have
    we accomplish in reguards to world terroism? Not much. We killed and maimed how many human lives to end what? Nothing.

    What might happen if we pull out…there are numorous possibilities..good, bad, not so good, not so bad..we don’t know. What we do know is that once we leave…our troops can come home out of harms way…our fiscal situation will change, for the better I hope…terrorism will still be a world issue, one that will not be solved by staying in Irag. What if war breaks out in Irag, any number of problems might come from that…but we won’t know until we leave…the middle east will need to step up to the plate and take on some responsibility…if we are now a global world economy then we are all in this together, we need not do this alone any longer.

    We need to get out of this mess as soon as possible. Have some serious
    hearings on the matter, and get our act together as a Nation.

    Oil, it isn’t worth one penny until it’s sold on the world market. Those who have it need to sell it.

    What do any of the candidates know until they are allowed to take control.

    This has been the worst in your face that I’m aware for a very long time…the trouble with this problem is that there have been far to many secrets, cover-ups, and just plain old stupid thinking. And there is terrorism, still in our lives. As a nation, we are waking up..it’s time to bring our troops home before we lose too many more for NOTHING. If we stay, it will be our loss in more ways than one…if we leave, and something bad happens, it will there, and not here. It will be our doing, but not our death.

    Just tell the Iragy population, we’ll be leaving soon…they’ll have to solve their own problems now, as before, as they will in the future, as must we,
    solve our problems, now and in the future..

    This is not and has never been a war on terror…never… We have made a giant mistake and we’ll be paying for it for a very long time to come…no more. Get out.

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