Leaving Iraq

LEAVING IRAQ….In the current Newsweek, moderate conservative weathervane Fareed Zakaria makes a bunch of excellent points about the almost complete lack of serious national security discourse in the Republican campaign these days (“it has turned into an exercise in chest-thumping”) and the related fear of Democrat hopefuls that they need to join in lest they be thought soft (“the party remains consumed by the fear that it will not come across as tough. Its presidential candidates vie with one another to prove that they are going to be just as macho and militant as the fiercest Republican.”)

As important as this is, though — and it’s well worth reading — what he says about Iraq might be even more important:

In order to begin reorienting America’s strategy abroad, any new U.S. administration must begin with Iraq. Until the United States is able to move beyond Iraq, it will not have the time, energy, political capital or resources to attempt anything else of any great significance.

….The administration has — surprise — tried to play up fears of the consequences of a drawdown in Iraq (which is always described as a Vietnam-style withdrawal down to zero). It predicts that this will lead to chaos, violence and a victory for terrorists. When we listen to these forecasts, it is worth remembering that every administration prediction about Iraq has been wrong.

….As for the broader Sunni-Shiite civil war, even if we improve the security situation temporarily, once we leave the struggle for power will resume. At some point, the Shiites and the Sunnis will make a deal. Until then, we can at best keep a lid on the violence but not solve its causes. To stay indefinitely is simply to keep a finger in the dike, fearful of the outcome. Better to consolidate what gains we have, limit our losses, let time work for us and move on.

This gets it precisely right. Our foreign policy is at a standstill right now, held hostage by Iraq and unable to move in any sensible direction as long as we’re there. Only if we get out can we start making serious progress against violent jihadists and their murderous and growing influence on Mideast public opinion.

As usual, though, Zakaria doesn’t quite have the courage of his convictions. Rather than suggesting we leave Iraq, he wants only to draw down our forces to 50,000 troops, a strategy that would almost certainly represent the worst of all worlds: a big enough number to keep the Arab public convinced that we intend a permanent imperial presence in the region, but too small a number to accomplish anything effective. Whether we like it or not, a presence like that will imply an ongoing police role in Iraq, but without enough troops to carry out that role.

A much better option would be to draw down nearly to zero, keeping troops and air support nearby but not physically within Iraq. Otherwise the pressure to intervene will rear its head constantly and Iraq will remain the festering centerpiece of American foreign policy, preventing us from devoting our attention to more serious issues. We can’t afford that, and neither can Iraq.