Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The end of an error

I don't always agree with the Chicago Tribune's Steve Chapman, but in his latest column he efficiently states something I've been saying for a while.

Pardon the extensive quote, but it's pretty good.

Pulling out, the argument goes, would destroy our credibility and embolden the terrorists. Neoconservative Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is among those confidently predicting a parade of horribles: ethnic slaughter, a regional war and a secure base for Al-Qaida to launch attacks on us and our allies.

If we withdraw, he wrote recently in the Washington Post, "the war in Iraq and in the region will not end but will only grow more dangerous." And there is the old argument that if we don't fight the terrorists in Iraq, we will have to fight them at home.

The first flaw in this line of reasoning is that lamenting the dangers of failure is not the same as finding a formula for success. Bush tells us that his new approach offers a path to victory, but that's what he said about the old strategy. Why should anyone believe that this time he knows what he's doing or is telling us the truth?

The forecasts of neoconservatives have generally been as reliable as your daily horoscope. In 2004, Robert Kagan derided those who thought the war was lost, declaring that the United States was about as likely to fail as Derek Jeter (a career .317 hitter) was to hit below .200.

Consider the other horribles that are envisioned. An emboldened Al-Qaida? It's not as though the terrorists are all sitting home playing checkers, having lost the desire to slaughter infidels. In fact, as they demonstrate daily in Iraq and Afghanistan, they're emboldened already. Lost credibility? Our credibility crumpled when we invaded on the cheap and proved unable to preserve basic order.

Ethnic and sectarian killing are occurring with us there and doubtless would continue with us gone. But MIT defense scholar Barry Posen notes that mass murder tends to occur when one group is unarmed, and "everyone in Iraq is armed." We could minimize bloodshed on our way out by offering protection to anyone who wants to relocate within Iraq, and by accepting refugees who have put their lives at risk helping us.

A secure base, Posen points out, is unlikely for the Sunni Al-Qaida in a country dominated by Shiites, and unlikely in a region where the group has few friends and many enemies -- unlike Afghanistan, where it has long gotten help from Pakistan.

There's also little basis to expect a regional war. Iran has no reason to intervene directly because its Shiite allies are already in the driver's seat. Saudi Arabia would be asking to get hammered by Iran if it invaded on behalf of the Sunnis. The Turkish army might cross the border to show the Kurds who's boss, but none of its neighbors would strenuously object, much less fight.

As for the claim that the terrorists would merely follow us back to our shores, history suggests the opposite. Texas A&M political scientist Michael Desch says that during Israel's 18-year occupation of Lebanon, some 1,200 Israelis were killed there. In the following six years (up to last summer's invasion), despite Israel's proximity, only 23 Israelis died in Hezbollah attacks launched from Lebanon. You're much more likely to get stung by bees if you poke their hive than if you keep your distance.

What amazes me is that after all this time people still pull out such hoary bromides as "fight them over there so we don't have to fight them here", ignoring fundamentals like the fact that the Iraqi insurgency (which makes up 90 percent or more of our opposition in Iraq) didn't exist until we invaded Iraq. Or that the jihadists who do come to Iraq to shoot at us by and large aren't "terrorists", as that term was widely understood before the administration began using it to describe everyone who disagrees with them -- including, famously and hilariously, teachers.

Pulling out will cause us to lose face. It will lead to short-term damage to our credibility on things like threatened use of force. But those are temporary effects, and anyway, what credibility do we have on that score now? Overall, while a civil war in Iraq will be bad, the direct damage and threat to the United States will be less than that caused by our continuing presence there.

Iraq is an expensive disaster, national securitywise. The only reason to stay at this point is whatever responsibility we feel for creating the current mess. But given the central government's involvement in factional fighting and the refusal of the warring parties to even attempt to talk, that responsibility lessens by the day. If they refuse to help themselves, it's not our job to prop them up.

Give Bush his surge and give Iraq one last chance to show it's serious about national reconciliation. But after all the incompetence and hubris that has gone before, one last chance is all they deserve.

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Blogger Not Your Mama said...

Well, that was my stance...a year or so ago. Sinking into apathy these days.

See I'm looking at it from a completely different POV. My background is not in politics, it's in psych and the reason this invasion was a disaster from the word go is that Bush et al do not understand the first thing about human nature.

The same people who did not understand it then still do not understand it now and will continue to try and force their worldview to "work" according to their ideas of how the world operates. I wish them the best of luck with that.

2/08/2007 3:30 AM  
Blogger Dennis Sanders said...


I don't know if I would count myself among the "fight them there, so we won't fight them here" camp, but I think both staying and leaving have their risks. I don't support the surge (it's too late in my view), because we have given up 3000 American lives to this cause and I don't want to give up another to a losing cause. But we can't be sure that our leaving will only result in a loss of face. I'm not as worried about "emboldening the terrorists" as I am about a wider regional conflict that could happen- something that was talked about when we went to war with Iraq in the Gulf War. When the US left Lebanon back in 1984 after the bombing of the Marine barracks, that left an image in the minds of some in the Mideast that the US was a paper tiger. I think we have to conisder a gradual pull out- but it has to be an option that tries to do the least harm to the Iraqi people and the region as a whole.

I should add that I never supported the initial invasion, but I also think that we have to what we can to not simply wash our hands of this matter either.

2/08/2007 9:52 AM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Mama: I agree that trusting the Bush administration to get it right now after demonstrating such extensive and varied incompetence up until now is foolish. They have no credibility anymore.

Dennis: Pulling out could well lead to a wider regional conflict. But I have three thoughts on that:

1. Maybe we need one. Papering over the problems hasn't worked very well up until now.

2. Maybe the very real risk of such a conflict will finally force the regional players to blink, sit up and realize that they don't want such a thing, and thus reach a long-term solution to the Middle East mess.

3. To be really hardnosed about it, look on the bright side. A war in the Mideast would certainly highlight the problem of being dependent on a resource from such a volatile part of the world. And overall we could ride out an oil shock relatively well, thanks to coal, nuclear, conservation and the fact that we produce a reasonable chunk of our own oil. It's other countries, notably Japan, that would be really screwed.

Mostly, though, I don't think anyone -- not the regional powers, not the international community -- is going to let it spiral out of control like that. Worst case, IMO, you get a proxy war in Iraq between Iran (backed by Russia and China) and the Arabs (backed by the West).

2/08/2007 11:21 AM  

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