On the eve of Obama’s big Iraq pullout speech, there has been a flurry of criticism from his own party and from scholars and bloggers over the supposedly slow pace of the withdrawal. Marc Lynch sums up the problem:
Just look at the calender. Iraq’s Parliamentary elections have not yet been scheduled and don’t even have an electoral law, and according to a number of senior Iraqi politicians probably will not be held until March 2010 (not December 2009). That would then give the U.S. about five months to withdraw the bulk of the dozen combat brigades which would reportedly remain. And then, keep in mind that U.S. officials generally agree (correctly) that the most dangerous period of elections is actually in their aftermath, when disgruntled losers might turn to violence or other destabilizing measures. So the following month will likely not seem a good time either. So that would leave four months to move, what — 9 brigades? Did someone say precipitous? Good luck with that. And that’s assuming, of course, that nothing else risky or destabilizing comes up in April or May 2010 (Kirkuk?) which would make a drawdown at that moment appear risky.
Lynch’s argument, paraphrased and simplified, is that the more US troops there are in Iraq, the less incentive there is for the Maliki government to handle things on its own, which will delay the much-needed political reconciliation and let the open wounds rot. As Lynch put it in another FP piece: “Postponing withdrawals would continue to freeze the current situation in place, while squandering the best opportunity the United States will ever have to reshape its commitments to Iraq.”
It is difficult to disagree, and yet I must. My worry is that we have come to see Iraq as somehow separate from the rest of the world, as if the country existed in its own war-damaged vacuum. The result is that while we have paid much attention to the internal dynamics of Iraqi politics and the ebb and flow of the security situation, we have all but ignored outside forces that can quickly become catalysts for upheaval. One such force is the global recession, which has sent oil prices plummeting and has left Iraq reeling from financial shock. This is probably the biggest threat the country now faces, and it’s quite possible that the hard-won security gains will unravel not because of renewed sectarian violence but because of, well, lack of money. Yet this possibility, obvious as it may sound, is nowhere to be seen in Lynch’s list of contingencies. What is even more troubling is that because of our tunnel vision, none of us saw it coming. What else is there that we’re not seeing?
So, yes — I do think the prudent thing for Obama to do is to go slow. After six years of disaster, the United States owes it to Iraq not to pull the plug in haste. It may not matter that vast areas of the country, such as Nineweh and Diyala, “remain kinetic”, as an Iraq-savvy commenter put it in FP; but it matters a great deal if the whole country goes up in flames while America watches. If you thought the invasion was bad for the U.S. image and ultimately demoralising for Americans, just think what that would do.
In critiquing Tom Ricks’s The Gamble, Stephen Walt makes the case for not staying:
Keeping U.S. forces in Iraq indefinitely means we will continue to hemorrhage our power and wealth on behalf of a government that has 1) already forced us to sign an agreement to withdraw, 2) is openly hostile to Israel, 3) friendly to Iran, 4) lukewarm about us, and 5) increasingly uninterested in Washington’s desires. And this is the regime on whose behalf we should expend more blood and treasure?
Short answer: Yes. Because when you break it, you own it.
One more thing. While I agree that open-ended military commitments are inherently dangerous, try as I might I fail to see any hidden “imperial” agenda behind Obama’s decision. Bush’s neocon backers may have dreamt of an empire, but for the new administration, there simply isn’t any ideological reason to linger in Iraq.
[UPDATE: As always, Judah is worth quoting:
In the context of the 'you broke it, you own it' paradigm, Obama has effectively handed back over to the Iraqis what he and American opinion, rightly or wrongly, consider to be a 'fixed' Iraq. If it winds up broken again, it will be -- politically speaking -- their bad.
Yeah -- except that Colin Powell's original Pottery Barn rule doesn't give you the option of fixing what you broke. The point is rather that once you invade a country and blast it to hell, your fortunes will be forever intertwined. SOFA or no SOFA, the United States is morally responsible for seeing to it that Iraq survives.]
[UPDATE II: I never quite realised it, but it seems I'm with the Arabs on this. Hat tip: Rob, for helping out an illiterate.]