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”:http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20070701faessay86401/barack-obama/renewing-american-leadership.html and “Clinton”:http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20071101faessay86601/hillary-rodham-clinton/security-and-opportunity-for-the-twenty-first-century.html say “real soon now”, while “McCain”:http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20071101faessay86602/john-mccain/an-enduring-peace-built-on-freedom.html suggests we’re in it for the long haul and “Huckabee”:http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20080101faessay87112/michael-d-huckabee/america-s-priorities-in-the-war-on-terror.html 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. 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. They did so “after the British left during the 1930s, at the beginning of decolonization”:http://www.betnahrain.org/bbs/index.pl/noframes/read/898. We’ve also seen “high rates of killing following withdrawal, within countries in which insurgencies have driven out Western powers”:http://ehistory.osu.edu/osu/origins/print.cfm?articleid=5 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”:http://stinet.dtic.mil/oai/oai?verb=getRecord&metadataPrefix=html&identifier=ADA283406.
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. Another key theater is Afghanistan — and, make no mistake, “we’re losing badly in Afghanistan”:http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20070101faessay86105-p0/barnett-r-rubin/saving-afghanistan.html. 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”:http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20060301faessay85201/stephen-biddle/seeing-baghdad-thinking-saigon.html, 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 war for decades, and did the right thing because how were we going to solve their problems? 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.” 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.
fn1. 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.
fn2. I guess that might not be in their job description.
fn3. It’s not like there’s anyone else to keep them from turning to fratricide, now that “Herdis Sigurgrimsdottir is gone”:http://www.thedailyshow.com/video/index.jhtml?searchterm=deserter+storm&x=0&y=0&search_title=Search+Results
fn4. 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.
fn5. 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.
fn6. As much as I’d like to think we could, we couldn’t.
fn7. 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?