Published Feb 12, 2008

Election season is nigh; candidates are dropping right and left. Central to this year’s campaign is Iraq. How soon do we get out? Obama and Clinton say “real soon now”,1 while McCain suggests we’re in it for the long haul and Huckabee punts, saying he’ll stay in there as long as the military wants but not a second longer. The two parties offer an interesting and inadvertent dichotomy, because no party puts the needs of the Iraqis first.2 This results in a campaign in which the Republicans want to sacrifice American lives to save Iraqis, and Democrats want to let Iraqis die to save Americans. To say this is an unexpected reversal of roles is an understatement. And, although I’m deeply uncomfortable with the concept, I do support a policy that has Iraqis dying so Americans don’t. In fact, I think we should get on with the Iraqis dying as soon as possible.

Let’s not minimize the basic problem: once American troops come home, the Iraqis will get to killing each other at a very high rate.3 They did so after the British left during the 1930s, at the beginning of decolonization. We’ve also seen high rates of killing following withdrawal, within countries in which insurgencies have driven out Western powers in the last 50 years. The rate of killing appears to be more or less directly related to the lack of preparation for withdrawal. Countries such as Mozambique, East Timor, Indonesia, and South Vietnam stand testament to this — for instance, the precipitate withdrawal of Portuguese forces from Mozambique led directly to a twenty-year civil war in which about a million Mozambicans died. Lacking any coherent plan or doctrine for such a withdrawal, we’re playing with fire.

Of course, people are dying now, and, so long as we stay in Iraq, Iraqis will continue dying — as will Americans. Since we can’t estimate how much it would change the casualty rate if we stay in, and we can’t estimate how long it would take for all the deaths to stop if we leave, then it’s hard to choose what causes the least “present value of death.” But it’s probably a large number of deaths straight away, a smaller number ongoing over a decade or more if we withdraw versus a smaller number over 2-3 decades including American deaths, if we stay in as per McCain.

Thus, on the surface, it appears unethical to even consider withdrawing from Iraq. But, as Obama points out, there’s more to it. Iraq is but one theater in the war against whatever it is we’re fighting a war against right now.4 Another key theater is Afghanistan — and, make no mistake, we’re losing badly in Afghanistan. Obama is correct to highlight the need for a focus on that country, and he’s echoed by Clinton and McCain. Perhaps it is more ethical to try to win in one theater, accepting defeat at great cost in the other, than to give in to defeat in both.

In a cold, realist sense, there may be a positive side to the internecine strife that would overtake Iraq after we left. Many al Quaeda-aligned insurgents would stay in Iraq, to work to build an Islamic state. Iran would inevitably gain influence there as well, and perhaps this would scare Saudi Arabia into deciding that America was the lesser of two evils and withdrawing its generous financial support for radical anti-American Islam. The conflict in Iraq would last a while — because it’s not based on ‘Islamofascism’ but instead on less-changeable attributes, thus perhaps bankrupting the already teetering Islamic Republic in Iran. All this, with few American casualties — not a bad deal.

The McCain alternative, expanding the military and investing heavily in development in both Iraq and Afghanistan, might bring results — but let’s face it, we’ll never spend enough money to make it work. Could a Republican president really raise taxes and institute a draft? No, even with the best of intentions this strategy would be half-implemented, and we’d lose in both theaters. Despite the hairshirt punish-ourselves-for-having-gotten-in appeal, this is a losing strategy in the larger war, and that’s excessive punishment for the eight years of overarching stupidity that got us in this position to start with.

So, we must get out. And we have two fine choices to do that — Sens. Clinton and Obama. Lately, Obama’s been getting the press, building new domestic coalitions and speaking in profoundly inspiring ways. He seems more Presidential than Hillary Clinton, not least because he comes off as such a good man. Won’t that good man ultimately choose to not abandon Iraqi children to decades of violence? How can he not, given the change of which he speaks?

But Bill Clinton’s administration did just that to Somalia. He pulled our forces out of that country, doomed it to civil war5 for decades, and did the right thing because how were we going to solve their problems?6 So I tend to believe that Hillary could actually pull the trigger, as it were, creating some new-century analog to the last chopper leaving the roof of the embassy in Saigon, getting us out of this quagmire and starting us on the path to victory in the depressingly-named “Long War.”7 And that’s why I support her. But I like Obama, and if you could convince me that he really is cold and calculating enough to turn his back on the poor Iraqis, I’d vote for him. He just strikes me as a man too good for the age.

1 Obama, in fact, suggests bringing the troops home before the election. I can’t tell if this is stupid or optimistic or making fun of the current administration.

2 I guess that might not be in their job description.

3 It’s not like there’s anyone else to keep them from turning to fratricide, now that Herdis Sigurgrimsdottir is gone

4 It’s clearly not “Islamofascism” unless you are prepared to change the definition of Fascism to “any authoritarian government we don’t like.” According to most Muslims, it’s not particularly Islamic at all. It may be the violent side of underdevelopment, or perhaps an inefficiency in global markets that has coincidentally left a ridiculous amount of money in the hands of a fairly small number of total nutcases. At any rate, while Global Communism was a good enemy for a Cold War, since it was specific and identifiable, we’ve failed to focus on an enemy in this “Long War.” This is a key mistake since you can’t win unless you have an enemy to beat. We should consider defining our enemy, and perhaps even developing a strategy against them.

5 To the extent that a geographic area that doesn’t qualify as a country in any way except that other countries don’t actively claim its territory can have a civil war.

6 As much as I’d like to think we could, we couldn’t.

7 We can’t provide any information at all about our strategy or goals, because the enemy might use that against us, but it is safe to tell the enemy that we don’t plan to beat him quickly? How is that clever?


You’re letting yourself be trapped in a right-wing frame. The notion that we have to choose between “sacrificing Americans to save Iraqis” or “sacrificing Iraqis to save Americans” is a losing choice, because the dead Americans involved volunteered and the Iraqis didn’t.

But of course, it’s also a lie.

If we wait through another 3000 dead Americans, NO IRAQIS WILL BE SAVED. They will merely be killed a year or two later.

We are not CAPABLE of fixing Iraq if it will not fix itself.

Therefore, it makes no sense to continue dumping blood and treasure down that particular hole.

And as for Obama planning to withdraw from Iraq, again, he’s said unequivocally that he would, in order to refocus on Afghanistan.

“Obama will immediately begin to remove our troops from Iraq. He will remove one to two combat brigades each month, and have all of our combat brigades out of Iraq within 16 months. Obama will make it clear that we will not build any permanent bases in Iraq.”

He said so before Hillary did. (And actually, IIRC, before Edwards did; and I was backing Edwards, back then.) Should he draw up timetables for withdrawing specific units? We have no idea what Bush will do to the disposition of forces between now and next January, so such a plan would be instantly obsolete anyhow.

I don’t think I’m trapped in a right-wing frame; did you read the linked OSU article? Are you familiar with the history of Vietnam, Algeria, Indonesia, East Timor, Angola, or Mozambique, for instance? The evidence is unequivocal that, the faster the withdrawal, the greater the ultimate bloodshed.

And I’m unconvinced that we can’t fix Iraq. It will just take 70 years and $trillions. But it’s not even about that; the French withdrawal from Indochina was pretty bloodless, because it took place over two years and involved years of negotiations beforehand. And, yes, it involved what we would probably now characterize as “ethnic cleansing.” But, with groups moved away from regions of conflict, there was less opportunity for loss of life. That’s not an unequivocal good, but it is a good.

Nonetheless, I state in the article that withdrawing is good, and precipitate withdrawal may in fact have positive spillover effects.

The more I see of Obama, the more I like him. Perhaps I need to watch closer to see the hard edge that will convince me he will continue his withdrawal from Iraq even after the first massacres take place.

I would count “decades and trillions” as beyond the current capacity of America to support. For the time-frame, the Army is already nearing a serious breaking point, where it won’t be able to provide the manpower necessary even to keep Iraq as stable as it is now. For the money, in case you haven’t noticed, the economy is on the edge of total meltdown.

Should a withdrawal be conducted in as organized a manner as possible? Of course.

But it is silly to even entertain “Should we withdraw?” as a serious question. We don’t have any realistic choice. Posing it as a choice implies responsibility for the consequences, and the fact is, those consequences have already been locked in by the irresponsibility and ineptitude of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Feith, Wolfowitz, Perle, Rice, and the rest.

I agree that there’s no other answer than to withdraw, although I think it’s good that our presidential candidates will be debating that, because it’s important enough that we should have a national conversation.

And of course we could afford it, and we could have an army large enough. We’re rich, and we have a lot of people. But we’d need to fully-mobilize, and accept a lower standard of living, and ongoing casualties at a moderate rate, and other negatives for a few decades going forward. I think that the real costs need to be put out there — too many right-wingers think, against all logic, that we can stay in at the current expenditure level. I do hope that McCain will be honest about the costs, since he is the only Republican who I think could be, but I doubt it.

The flip side is, I think the left needs to look more at what an organized, planned withdrawal takes: that is, a commitment over probably a couple of years, plus direct negotiation with our enemies. That’s also a big activity.

Precipitate withdrawal seems the answer to me. But very few people will have the cojones for that, given the effects that will follow immediately.