Damage Control

I’ve been saying for some time now that Democrats needed to be cautious on campaigning on withdrawing our forces from Iraq regardless of polls and regardless of the views of their most fervent activists because, since likely Democratic presidential candidates don’t plan to withdraw our forces from Iraq in the foreseeable future any more than President Bush does, at some point they would be put in the position of unselling what they’d been selling.

The unselling process may have begun.

Yesterday Newbusters chronicled the conversation among David Ignatius, Time Magazine’s Michael Duffy, NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell, and US News and World Report’s Gloria Borger on Chris Matthews’s show on NBC. All four spoke against withdrawing our forces from Iraq, largely on the same grounds that I’ve argued against the prudence of the move here including:

  • The number of casualties on the part of Iraqi civilians is likely to rise substantially following a U. S. withdrawal.

    Michael Duffy: The Administration estimates that we have a thousand Iraqis dying a month at the current rate. That could explode, maybe ten times as many, if the U.S. leaves.

  • That the move would simultaneously expose Iraq to becoming a haven for violent Islamist radicals while reducing our ability to prevent that from happening.

    David Ignatius: Well, these struggles are different fronts of the same war. There is a radical Islamic movement that is active all over the world. It’s seeking to hit U.S. targets and targets of our allies…This national intelligence estimate says that it has regained its strength, and most important, it has regained a safe haven in northwest Pakistan. And, the big question the U.S. is going to have to decide: that’s a very stark warning, that they have, they have a platform to stage 9/11 level attacks. What are we going to do about it?

    The notion that, you know, a defeat for the United States and its allies in Iraq is costless in terms of the larger war against al Qaeda is just wrong. I mean, you know, bin Laden said again and again, “The Americans are weak. If you hit them hard, they’ll run away. They were hit hard in Beirut, they ran away. They were hit hard in Somalia, they ran away.”

    If, if the Iraq experience shows the same thing, that will be emboldening.

  • The prospect for the catastrophe in Iraq spreading or inviting the neighbors.

    Michael Duffy: They don’t, this is one the Administration doesn’t want to talk about much Chris because it doesn’t just scare Americans or Iraqis. It scares markets. Because it immediately goes to the price of oil and what would happen to all kinds of countries in the Persian Gulf. At the moment, the U.S. doesn’t want to talk about this, but it is so real that even Democrats are trying to figure out a plan are concerned about because the Saudis would come in on the side of the Sunnis, and this is already beginning to happen…

  • That it’s logistically impossible to withdraw our forces in the near term.

    Gloria Borger: And can I say, this is such a problem right now for Democrats as we see them not only debate in Congress, but also in all of their presidential debates, because privately many of them will say, and Joe Biden has even said it publicly, that you can’t withdraw overnight. That it would be dangerous for us to do so.

One of the most dangerous things in military activity is a rout. The U. S. casualties taken in a rout could exceed the count we’ve seen to date.

The objection to taking these thought seriously, of course, is that these are the mandarins of the prevailing wisdom. The prevailing wisdom is what it is because it’s held by those who prevail.

This morning Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack report on their recent visit to Iraq in an op-ed in the New York Times which concludes:

In the end, the situation in Iraq remains grave. In particular, we still face huge hurdles on the political front. Iraqi politicians of all stripes continue to dawdle and maneuver for position against one another when major steps towards reconciliation — or at least accommodation — are needed. This cannot continue indefinitely. Otherwise, once we begin to downsize, important communities may not feel committed to the status quo, and Iraqi security forces may splinter along ethnic and religious lines.

How much longer should American troops keep fighting and dying to build a new Iraq while Iraqi leaders fail to do their part? And how much longer can we wear down our forces in this mission? These haunting questions underscore the reality that the surge cannot go on forever. But there is enough good happening on the battlefields of Iraq today that Congress should plan on sustaining the effort at least into 2008.

These aren’t neo-con firebrands. They’re sensible center-left scholars from the Brooking Insitution.

I have no way of knowing whether the progress that Mssrs. O’Hanlon and Pollack observed in Iraq are due to the change in strategy known as “the surge” or the cumulative consequence of all of our activities and those of the Iraqis themselves since 2003. I do think that paying more attention to the security of ordinary Iraqis is critical to creating a space in which progress can be made on the political front. I am resigned to the prospect that progress on the political front in Iraq won’t be satisfactory this year or next year or for the foreseeable future. And, as I have noted many times before, the problem is one of incentives.

That the incentives have changed at least for some is clear from the cooperation of tribal leaders with the U. S. forces in western Iraq against an insurgency there that they deemed was a greater threat than the Americans (and will continue for just as long as they continue to believe that). I don’t have any idea whether that insurgency was al-Qaeda, “al-Qaeda”, Ba’athists, Iraqi nationalists, or just ordinary thugs, I doubt that anybody else really does, either, and I don’t much care.

Iraq is a train wreck and will remain a train wreck for the foreseeable future because, absent dictatorial force, Iraq has always been a train wreck. We didn’t cause that. We just disconnected the governor. That was a perfectly good argument against invading in 2003 (it’s one I made before I had a blog) but it’s not particularly relevant now that we’re there.

The next step will be to see if the top tier Democratic presidential aspirants begin to repeat more loudly what they’ve been saying all along: we’re going to have substantial numbers of forces in Iraq for a long, long time.

4 comments… add one
  • I have no way of knowing whether the progress that Mssrs. O’Hanlon and Pollack observed in Iraq are due to the change in strategy known as “the surge” or the cumulative consequence of all of our activities and those of the Iraqis themselves since 2003.

    Both. Much of what Petraues is doing could not have been done in 2004 or 2005, because we didn’t have the ISF to do it.

    because, absent dictatorial force, Iraq has always been a train wreck.

    Hell, it was a worse train wreck with dictatorial force: WMD used against the Kurds, Shia in mass graves, daily repression and torture. Not to mention two wars of conquest. It just didn’t make headlines here at home.

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