Saturday, September 30, 2006

The war in Iraq

Of course we need to bring our troops home from Iraq. But it's just not that simple.

Let me back up a bit.

I suppose it's not a politically correct thing to say these days, but I supported the decision to go into Iraq. Not for the reasons that Bush gave, though. Sure, I thought he had WMDs. (OK, hands up everyone who *didn't* think he had WMDs. Seriously. Even the French thought he had WMDs, as well as Clinton during the 90s, and, well, everyone. So for that reason, I think the claim that Bush deliberately lied is something of a stretch. Which is not to absolve him of stretching the truth, ignoring data that didn't fit his world view, and so forth. But I have already digressed well beyond what I should have).

But my reasons for supporting action in Iraq were not about WMDs. There were, I think, a number of other compelling reasons:
  • Post-9/11, a clear message had to be sent to states that sponsor terrorism or provide haven for them. While Iraq never had ties to 9/11 (something that Bush himself has finally admitted), they clearly met these two goals. Two simple examples include cash payments made to families of Palestinian suicide bombers and the hosting of Abu Nidal. Failure to help Al Queda (in fact Saddam hated Al Queda) is irrelevant; he harbored terrorists, and that needed to stop. Sadly, negotiations would not have achieved this outcome, only Saddams ouster would do so. The fact that he had nothing to do with 9/11 was not important - what was important was preventing future attacks from being hatched within Iraq's safe haven.
  • There are many dictators in the world deserving of the adjective "evil", and I would hardly support taking action to remove most of the others. However, I think it is fair to say that Saddam was in a special class of evil all by himself, with a demonstrable track record of genocide and threatening his neighbors, in addition to desires for WMDs and the aforementioned support of terrorism. Even if Germany had not declared war on the US in WWII, I think we can all agree that history would have made it plain that going in to take out the Nazis would have been justified because Hitler was simply that bad and that big of a threat to his neighbors. I know that Hitler comparisons are so overused these days that they are almost cliche, but Saddam is one of those rare dictators who I think actually merit the comparison. And as such, the world cannot and should not wait for such monsters to be a "direct threat" before acting. Hitler had committed quite a few atrocities before the US got involved; it's simply too bad that we didn't get involved sooner.
  • The post-gulf-war stalemate had gone on long enough; it needed to reach a conclusion one way or another.
Phew, I feel better now for getting that off of my chest. So I think Bush did the right thing, albeit for the wrong reasons.

And, I'm afraid, he did it in totally the wrong way and has made an absolute mess of things. Wow. No wonder the recent National Intelligence Estimate says that the Iraq war has become a cause celebre for terrorists. Bush never planned for nation building, he never planned for an insurgency, he never made the investments necessary to help get the civilian population more interested in building a new Iraq, and he never truly got a worldwide coalition like his daddy did to increase our success. One of the lessons I thought we had learned from Vietnam was that once you commit to a war, you go in 120%. We never had sufficient troops to establish order, and without that almost nothing else matters. People with nothing to lose are the most dangerous enemies to have, and most Iraqis currently have nothing to lose.

We had a tremendous opportunity to really make a positive change in a part of the world that so sorely needs to change, but I fear that we went in blinded by ideology rather than pragmatism.

So what do we do now?

I think that we need to get out of Iraq. Actually, I hope that's not as controversial a statement as it may be - after all, I hope that everyone thinks we need to get out of Iraq ultimately. The question is really when and how.

A lot of folks advocate withdrawing our troops immediately. I would label this "wishful thinking" as well as an incredibly dangerous idea. For many people, I believe that the logic is that the war was a mistake (both going in as well as how it has been conducted) and this can somehow roll things back to the way they were, or at least prevent things from getting worse. (And, there's a certain anti-war contingency that seems to oppose any war for any reason). Unfortunately, we can't roll back to the way things were, and pulling out precipitously would make things much worse. Specifically we would leave behind a failed state that would be a safe haven for jihadists, and we would make quite a statement that indeed America can be defeated through these tactics. I believe that terrorism would indeed increase - perhaps dramatically - if we were to do this.

But staying the course is obviously not an option either, despite the president's seeming insistence that somehow there are no options between the two extremes of staying the course or joining Al Queda. To quote Dr. Phil: "How's that working for you, Mr. President?" It's not working, and we need to do something different.

It's trite to say, but what we need to do is to win. To win, we must leave behind a functioning state and have actually improved our security situation. When that is the case, a withdrawal is both possible and prudent. I'm hardly an expert here, so this is probably naive on my part, but I believe that there are 4 components to success here:
  1. Boots on the ground, both ours and Iraqi as well as anybody else we can convince to help us. (I fear Bush has burned a lot of bridges here, though). Security is a precondition to everything.
  2. Infrastructure investment. When we can't even keep the power on in Baghdad as much during the day as Saddam did, is it any wonder that we are resented?
  3. Help get the fledgling government going, ensure that it has legitimacy in the eyes of the people, and has the strength to disarm militias. At the end of the day, only Iraqis can disarm militias - foreigners cannot - but even Iraqis cannot do it while there is still such a power struggle going on.
  4. Phased withdrawals.
I think the "Phased withdrawals" part above requires a bit of explanation of what I mean. Bush has said "as they stand up, we will stand down." Nice theory, but it has a fatal flaw: since the soldier that stands up in Iraq tends to gets shot in the head pretty quickly, there's a pretty strong incentive for the Iraqis to not stand up, to leave the Americans standing up instead. We need to reverse this: we need to stand down so that the Iraqis have no choice but to stand up.

If we do this precipitously (i.e., withdraw from the country), the Iraqi security forces won't last a New York minute; it will create a vacuum that will be filled with anarchy and terrorists. But if we do this a little at a time - particularly after securing a neighborhood as the recent operations in the Adhamiya neighborhood are hoping to achieve - then the Iraqis have a fighting chance to stand up and stay standing. And then we can force the next neigborhood, and the next one, and the next one.

Our problem today is that we cannot pull out because we have not set up the conditions for success, yet our president who famously abhors nation building is not focusing on how to set up those conditions. It seems to me that this is the key to bringing the troops home.

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