Cordesman’s Case for Strategic Patience in Iraq

Anthony Cordesman went on the same fact-finding trip to Iraq as Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack and naturally came to different conclusions than they presented in their much-discussed NYT op-ed.

This isn’t surprising. While O’Hanlon and Pollack presented themselves as “two analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration’s miserable handling of Iraq,” they were in fact supporters of the war who grew disillusioned with how it was carried out. Cordesman, on the other hand, was always a critic.

Still, while Cordesman is less enthusiastic about our chances of “winning,” he is not waving the “Withdraw Now” banner.

Everyone sees Iraq differently. As one leading US official in Iraq put it, “the current situation is like playing three dimensional chess in the dark while someone is shooting at you.” It is scarcely surprising that my perceptions of a recent trip to Iraq are different from that of two of my traveling companions and those of several other recent think tank travelers to the country.

From my perspective, the US now has only uncertain, high risk options in Iraq. It cannot dictate Iraq’s future, only influence it, and this presents serious problems at a time when the Iraqi political process has failed to move forward in reaching either a new consensus or some form of peaceful coexistence. It is Iraqis that will shape Iraq’s ability or inability to rise above its current sectarian and ethnic conflicts, to redefine Iraq’s politics and methods of governance, establish some level of stability and security, and move towards a path of economic recovery and development. So far, Iraq’s national government has failed to act at the rate necessary to move the country forward or give American military action political meaning.

The attached trip report does, however, show there is still a tenuous case for strategic patience in Iraq, and for timing reductions in US forces and aid to Iraqi progress rather than arbitrary dates and uncertain benchmarks. It recognizes that strategic patience is a high risk strategy, but it also describes positive trends in the fighting, and hints of future political progress.


Luck, however, is not something that can be ignored, and there is a window of opportunity that could significantly improve the chances of US success in Iraq if the Iraqi government acts upon it. The US also now has a country team in Iraq that is far more capable than in the past, and which may be able to develop and implement the kind of cohesive plans for US action in Iraq that have been weak or lacking to date. If that team can come forward with solid plans for an integrated approach to a sustained US effort to deal with Iraq’s plans and risks, there would be a far stronger and more bipartisan case for strategic patience.

Greg Sargent wonders, “Will Cordesman’s conclusions get anywhere near the same level of media attention that the big news orgs lavished on O’Hanlon and Pollack?” Likely not. Confirming the conventional wisdom isn’t news. O’Hanlon and Pollack managed to give media commenters something new to talk about. Plus, they wrote a pithy op-ed for the NYT rather than putting out a longish trip report in PDF format.

Still, Cordesman’s report is getting notice. CNN reported on it yesterday and NPR discussed it this morning. What’s interesting, though, is that the focus has been on the fact that it is more pessimistic than the O’Hanlon-Pollack take rather than the headline that Cordesman put on the piece: That there is indeed a Case for Strategic Patience, albeit a tenuous one.

PDFs are hard to cut-and-paste but here are some interesting excepts [all emphases original]:

Reducing Troop Levels Does Not Necessarily Reduce Casualties and Can Make Staying Ineffective [pp. 5-6]

It is also important to understand that reducing troop levels does not reduce risk or casualties unless it is conducted as part of a military plan. Leaving fewer troops exposed in either forward bases or compounds that can be targeted from the outside can easily raise casualties. The idea that the US can some how simply stand aside and deal with Al Qa’ida or the Sadr militia by relying largely on air power and Special Forces is equally absurd. The US could not target, it could not cover the country, it could not secure its bases, and it would lack the force numbers to act decisively without relying on Iraqi forces. Such concepts are little more than childish in practical military terms.

The Case for Strategic Patience [p. 6]

None of these factors are reasons for making open-ended commitments to remaining in Iraq or for “staying the course.” There is no point in pursuing failed strategies or failed policies. Iraq is a gamble, and one where even the best-managed future US policies may still fail. It is a grim reality that the mistakes and blunders that have dominated US policy in Iraq throughout the US intervention have interacted with Iraqi failures to make any continued US effort one filled with serious risks.

There are reasons, however, for carefully considering the cost of precipitous US withdrawal, for examining the full range of alternatives, and for demanding that any plan for US action in Iraq go far beyond the issue of US presence and troop levels and set policy goals both for future US action in Iraq and the region.


Looking Beyond Partisanship and Artificial Deadlines [p. 7]

The possibility of debating and agreeing on a more workable plan for US operations in Iraq may well be enough of a case for strategic patience through at least early 2008. The idea that General Petraeus can give a military progress report in September that should shape US policy ignores the fact that the fate of Iraq is scarcely dominated by US military action. US policy must look at the political and economic situation, and all of Iraq’s civil conflicts, and must not just focus on Al Qa’ida and the worst elements of the Sadr militia.

For all the reasons described above, the US has a vital national interest in changing the nature of the debate in the US from the current options of either staying the course or rushing out with little regard for the consequences. The domestic US security structure has so far failed to present meaningful options, and seems incapable to doing so. The US team in Iraq, however, is much more experienced, and there is a new degree of realism and competence that clearly can never come from within a failed Bush Administration.

Luck and the Tribes Partly Compensate for a Failed the Surge Strategy [p. 7]

There are other reasons for patience. While all the half truths and spin of the past have built up a valid distrust of virtually anything the Administration says about Iraq, real military progress is taking place and the US team in Baghdad is actively seeking matching political and economic progress.

Declassified intelligence data generated by MNF-West confirms in far more detail what a walk on the ground reveals in both Anbar and Northern Iraq. Substantial numbers of tribal leaders have turned against Al Qa’ida for its repressive efforts to enforce its view of Islamic custom, forced marriages, kidnappings and extortions, and killings of local and tribal leaders. Key tribal leaders, and the main tribal confederation in the area have started to fight Al Qa’ida, have turned to US forces for help, and seem willing to strike a bargain with the Shi’ite-dominated central government if the government will give them money, a reasonable degree of de facto Sunni autonomy, and incorporate their fighters into auxiliary police forces, the regular police, and Iraqi Army. Sunnis in other areas are considering similar deals, although such Sunni support of the US and central government is uncertain and dependent on far more action from the central government than has occurred to date.

Al Qa’ida is far from defeated, it still has major support from some tribes, and significant Al Qa’ida operating areas exist in the Al Qaim, Hysaybah, Rawah, Anah, Haditha Triad, Sakran, Upper Lake Thar Thar, Hit, Baghdadi, Kubaysah, Ramadi, Karmah, Fallujah, and Zaidon areas. Many other Sunni Islamist extremist groups are still operating in parts of Iraq and have suffered only limited losses.

The report is complex and thoughtful; I commend it to you in its entirety. While less optimistic than the NYT op-ed, the difference is in degree and emphasis rather than substance. Both reports agree that significant progress is being made on the security front and very little movement on the political front. Both agree that precipitous withdrawal would be catastrophic.

Both agree that we could do everything right and still lose. The question remains between choosing least bad options.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    This is the land of Tang and Pop Tarts. Patience is not our strong suit.

    I agree that, at least at this point, leaving enough troops not to be sitting ducks and be able to stave off the worst of the possible scenarios is the least bad option. It’s also what the first tier Democratic presidential aspirants are proposing despite polls, Congressional posturing, and rhetoric to the contrary.

  2. James Joyner says:

    It’s also what the first tier Democratic presidential aspirants are proposing despite polls, Congressional posturing, and rhetoric to the contrary.

    Obama seems to be proposing something more rash, although it may be merely rhetorical positioning. My guess is that, in any case, a President Obama would be constrained by realities more than Candidate Obama.

  3. Andy says:

    Both agree that precipitous withdrawal would be catastrophic.

    Isn’t precipitous withdrawal almost tautologically catastrophic?