Leaving Iraq

LEAVING IRAQ….I’ve gotten a few emails and blog responses to my Sunday post about Chaos Hawks that make me think I should have written a little more clearly. So let me do that today.

Basically, I’m getting smacked around on two counts. First, that I’m denying anything bad will happen if we leave Iraq. Second, that I’m a monster who obviously doesn’t care if lots of Iraqis die because we leave.

So here’s what I think, as plainly as I can put it. First: I agree that if we leave Iraq the result will be an intensified civil war. Second: I agree that the bloodshed will be horrific.

But here’s what else I think: If we don’t leave Iraq, the result will simply be a longer, slower civil war. I won’t rehash all the ongoing arguments over the surge in this post, but I don’t think it’s working and I don’t think it will work. The result of staying, in other words, will be the same horrific bloodshed spread over a longer period; a more protracted stretch of regional destabilization; a greater probability of violence spreading to other countries (any casus belli will do); more American deaths; and ever greater strain on the military. This is a deeply unsettling view to most American policymakers, who hate the idea that U.S. intervention is, in some cases, either impotent or actively harmful, but unsettling or not, the bulk of the evidence suggests that that’s the case in Iraq.

But there’s more. The Chaos Hawks don’t merely argue that Iraq’s civil war will continue if we leave. Instead, since they can’t point to much affirmative evidence that our presence is actually improving the political situation inside Iraq, they’re forced to take the far more extreme position (see Crocker, Ryan, congressional testimony of) that if we leave Iraq the entire Middle East will go up in flames. But despite the fact that the scenario they lay out is almost cartoonishly harrowing, they barely even bother making a case for it. They just treat it as some kind of holy writ. To my ears, though, this sounds not like a sober and even-handed professional assessment, but more like a furious last ditch effort to frighten the public into opposing withdrawal — one that an awful lot of people seem to have accepted pretty uncritically. At the very minimum, though, can we at least have a serious conversation about this instead of simply accepting the maximally hawkish view at face value yet again? In a dramatic era it may be undramatic to say so, but the evidence that an Iraqi civil war will inevitably broaden into a massive regional conflagration simply isn’t very convincing.

Look: If I thought the surge could work, I’d support it no matter how much I hate the idea. It would be good for Iraq, good for the region, and good for America. And if only a cynical argument will persuade you, it would also be good for an incoming Democratic president, who wouldn’t come to office with a hideous quagmire as his or her top foreign policy priority.

But I don’t believe that. I think the surge is just desperation talking, and I sometimes wonder if even its supporters believe it’s going to work. A better idea is a prudent withdrawal of the U.S. presence — for the sake of argument, let’s say a 24-month phased drawdown of some kind, with troops left in Kurdistan and airpower available in nearby bases — that gives the Maliki government a fighting chance to establish itself in a reasonable timeframe and the U.S. military a chance to plan its pullout in the most effective possible way. At this point, we’re inciting as much violence as we’re stopping, and we’re having virtually no effect at all on the ongoing sectarian cleansing and mounting refugee crisis. It’s time to leave.