Cutting and Running With Honor

Via Jim Henley, I see that former NSA head William Odom argues in the LAT that cutting and running is our only option in Iraq and that the only question is how to overcome the political obstacles to doing so.

To be sure, Odom has been opposed to the war from the start and is former member of the Center for Defense Information, a think tank famous for hiring relatively liberal retired generals. Still, he’s worth listening to on defense issues (as are CDI types generally) if for no reason that to get an informed alternative perspective.

Whether he’s ultimately right as to the merits of getting American forces out of Iraq is difficult to say. I still think victory is possible there but don’t think it will happen any time soon. I am sure, however, this his plan has little chance of working.

First, the U.S. must concede that it has botched things, cannot stabilize the region alone and must let others have a say in what’s next. As U.S. forces begin to withdraw, Washington must invite its European allies, as well as Japan, China and India, to make their own proposals for dealing with the aftermath. Russia can be ignored because it will play a spoiler role in any case.

Unlike many conservatives, I think multi-lateralism generally makes a lot of sense. In this case, though, I hardly see how adding additional diametrically opposed agendas to the mix helps anything. The Russians at least have some experience dealing with Iraq going back to their Cold War alliance with Saddam; the others would just be in the way.

Rapid troop withdrawal and abandoning unilateralism will have a sobering effect on all interested parties. Al Qaeda will celebrate but find that its only current allies, Iraqi Baathists and Sunnis, no longer need or want it. Iran will crow but soon begin to worry that its Kurdish minority may want to join Iraqi Kurdistan and that Iraqi Baathists might make a surprising comeback.

Although European leaders will probably try to take the lead in designing a new strategy for Iraq, they will not be able to implement it. This is because they will not allow any single European state to lead, the handicap they faced in trying to cope with Yugoslavia’s breakup in the 1990s. Nor will Japan, China or India be acceptable as a new coalition leader. The U.S. could end up as the leader of a new strategic coalition — but only if most other states recognize this fact and invite it to do so.

This is essentially a Rube Goldberg device to that would, if successfully implemented, get us back to where we are now. That strikes me as somewhat less than helpful.

The second initiative is to create a diplomatic forum for Iraq’s neighbors. Iran, of course, must be included. Washington should offer to convene the forum but be prepared to step aside if other members insist.

How, exactly, would this make the Sunnis more likely to play ball? Or the Kurds less likely to secede?

Third, the U.S. must informally cooperate with Iran in areas of shared interests. Nothing else could so improve our position in the Middle East. The price for success will include dropping U.S. resistance to Iran’s nuclear weapons program. This will be as distasteful for U.S. leaders as cutting and running, but it is no less essential. That’s because we do share vital common interests with Iran. We both want to defeat Al Qaeda and the Taliban (Iran hates both). We both want stability in Iraq (Iran will have influence over the Shiite Iraqi south regardless of what we do, but neither Washington nor Tehran want chaos). And we can help each other when it comes to oil: Iran needs our technology to produce more oil, and we simply need more oil.

Accepting Iran’s nuclear weapons is a small price to pay for the likely benefits. Moreover, its nuclear program will proceed whether we like it or not. Accepting it might well soften Iran’s support for Hezbollah, and it will definitely undercut Russia’s pernicious influence with Tehran.

I agree that accepting the inevitable is a small price to pay. Still, as already noted, I hardly see how Iran could be helpful.

Fourth, real progress must be made on the Palestinian issue as a foundation for Middle East peace. The invasion of Iraq and the U.S. tilt toward Israel have dangerously reduced Washington’s power to broker peace or to guarantee Israel’s security. We now need Europe’s help. And good relations with Iran would help dramatically.

The Arab-Israeli issue has absolutely nothing to do with Iraq. If we rounded up every Jew into a concentration camp and gave the Palestinians every square inch of the former Israel, the reduction in sectarian tension in Iraq would be zero. Ditto the Kurd problem. Or the militias. Or al Qaeda.

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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 and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. James Joyner…

    Penned a nice little critique of William Odom’s approach to “cutting and running” (withdrawing soon) from Iraq…….

  2. Triumph says:

    The Russians at least have some experience dealing with Iraq going back to their Cold War alliance with Saddam

    What Cold War “alliance” are you referring to? The CIA was involved both in the 1963 and 68 coups which enhanced the power of the Baathists. The US backed Iraq during the 1980s war with Iran.

    If “experience” is your measure–the US has a much longer history of active involvement in IRaq affairs than Russia.

  3. James Joyner says:

    The Soviet alliance with the Iraqi regime began in the early 1970s and continued through the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    See this backgrounder.

  4. legion says:

    How, exactly, would this make the Sunnis more likely to play ball? Or the Kurds less likely to secede?

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – the only thing that will (or does, IMHO) keep the Kurds from seceding is the knowledge that Turkey would not hesitate to slaughter every last one of them if they did. I don’t think even dangling the carrot of EU membership in front of the Turks would stop them.

  5. Triumph says:

    The Soviet alliance with the Iraqi regime began in the early 1970s and continued through the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    See this backgrounder.

    Thanks for the link. From your backgrounder:

    Despite the importance that both the Bakr and the Saddam Husayn governments attached to the relationship with the Soviet Union, they were reluctant to have Iraq become too closely entangled with the Soviet Union or with its sphere of influence.

    The major impetus for Iraq’s retreat from its close relationship with the Soviet Union was not economic, despite Iraq’s increasing commercial ties with the West, but political. Iraqis were shocked by the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and Saddam Husayn’s government took a lead among the Arab states in condemning the invasion.

    Additional strain was placed on Iraqi-Soviet relations in the fall of 1980, when the Soviet Union cut off arms shipments to Iraq

    The Soviets were still the main source of weapons for the Iraqi military, a fact that restrained public criticism. Nevertheless, the Saddam Husayn government generally suspected that the Soviet Union was more interested in gaining influence in Iran than in preserving its friendship with Iraq. Consequently, Iraqi leaders were skeptical of Soviet declarations that Moscow was trying to persuade Iran to agree to a cease-fire.

    Iraq generally steered a middle course, playing the superpowers off of each other for their own gain. They exhibited typical realist behavior. Any alliances–with the West or East–were strategic and ephemeral.

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    Back to the point at hand. We need to get used to the idea that no one, repeat, no one else will step up to look out for our interests in the Middle East.

    Look, I opposed the the invasion but I believe that withdrawal any time in the near future would be folly. Yes, the lives of our soldiers in Iraq are a vital interest as is the expense in maintaining them. They aren’t our only interest in Iraq or in the region, our interests in Iraq are inextricably entwined with our interests in the region, and all of our interests must be weighed in identifying what comes next.

    If we’re absolutely bound and determined to withdraw, we need to know how we’ll secure our other interests. A flood of refugees from Iraq will further destabilize Iraq’s neighbors. Kenneth Pollack has talked about creating “containment zones” along Iraq’s borders, presumably to prevent desparate, fleeing people from doing so.

    That’s an obvious political non-starter but at least he’s thinking about our interests and the next step.

  7. spencer says:

    Dave — nice analysis, but wouldn’t creating such containment zones just be creating another Palestine type long run problem.

  8. Cernig says:

    There’s one thing for sure Odom is right on. If the U.S. withdraws:

    Al Qaeda will celebrate but find that its only current allies, Iraqi Baathists and Sunnis, no longer need or want it.

    As soon as the enemy of their enemy is no longer their friend, the Sunnis will kick A-Q out off Iraq faster than the U.S. military ever could hope to. There have been several instances where that has already been proven on a small scale. Yet Bush and his coterie insist that withdrawal would hand A-Q the nation of Iraq and its oil. Its pure scaremongering to say so, but they keep doing it and the “Party, uber alles” crowd keep parroting it.

    Regards, C

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    Dave — nice analysis, but wouldn’t creating such containment zones just be creating another Palestine type long run problem.

    They’re Kenneth Pollak’s idea not mine. They sound to me more like Berlin walls. I see no way that’s politically acceptable.