Iraq: Ten Years or Ten Months?

Tom Friedman, a supporter of the war from the beginning who has become rather infamous for repeatedly saying we would turn the corner in X months,* now has set forth a new metric:

10 months or 10 years. Either we just get out of Iraq in a phased withdrawal over 10 months, and try to stabilize it some other way, or we accept the fact that the only way it will not be a failed state is if we start over and rebuild it from the ground up, which would take 10 years. This would require reinvading Iraq, with at least 150,000 more troops, crushing the Sunni and Shiite militias, controlling borders, and building Iraq’s institutions and political culture from scratch.

Excerpt via Andrew Sullivan who contends, not unreasonably, “Given our military constraints, the message of the last election, and the inadequacy of presidential leadership, I’m compelled to say: 10 months.” (As an aside, the NYT’s “Select” feature has, as widely predicted in the blogosphere, rendered such voices as Friedman’s amazingly marginal. His columns have gone from must-reads to something one stumbles upon on rare occasion, much like those who write for relatively obscure publications. I wonder if this result has been worth whatever financial recompense the Times is garnering with the subscription wall?)

Friedman’s choices strike me as far too extreme. Whether it would actually take another decade to stabilize Iraq is an open question. Surely, however, blowing it up and starting over is not called for. The Brits had numerous setbacks in Malaya, for example, before getting it right. It did indeed take twelve years, all told, for that to happen.

*UPDATE: From FAIR’s “Tom Friedman’s Flexible Deadlines” (May 2006):

“The next six months in Iraq—which will determine the prospects for democracy-building there—are the most important six months in U.S. foreign policy in a long, long time.” (New York Times, 11/30/03)

“What I absolutely don’t understand is just at the moment when we finally have a UN-approved Iraqi-caretaker government made up of—I know a lot of these guys—reasonably decent people and more than reasonably decent people, everyone wants to declare it’s over. I don’t get it. It might be over in a week, it might be over in a month, it might be over in six months, but what’s the rush? Can we let this play out, please?” (NPR’s Fresh Air, 6/3/04)

“What we’re gonna find out, Bob, in the next six to nine months is whether we have liberated a country or uncorked a civil war.” (CBS’s Face the Nation, 10/3/04)

“Improv time is over. This is crunch time. Iraq will be won or lost in the next few months. But it won’t be won with high rhetoric. It will be won on the ground in a war over the last mile.” (New York Times, 11/28/04)

“I think we’re in the end game now…. I think we’re in a six-month window here where it’s going to become very clear and this is all going to pre-empt I think the next congressional election—that’s my own feeling— let alone the presidential one.” (NBC’s Meet the Press, 9/25/05)

“Maybe the cynical Europeans were right. Maybe this neighborhood is just beyond transformation. That will become clear in the next few months as we see just what kind of minority the Sunnis in Iraq intend to be. If they come around, a decent outcome in Iraq is still possible, and we should stay to help build it. If they won’t, then we are wasting our time.” (New York Times, 9/28/05)

“We’ve teed up this situation for Iraqis, and I think the next six months really are going to determine whether this country is going to collapse into three parts or more or whether it’s going to come together.” (CBS’s Face the Nation, 12/18/05)

“We’re at the beginning of I think the decisive I would say six months in Iraq, OK, because I feel like this election—you know, I felt from the beginning Iraq was going to be ultimately, Charlie, what Iraqis make of it.” (PBS’s Charlie Rose Show, 12/20/05)

“The only thing I am certain of is that in the wake of this election, Iraq will be what Iraqis make of it—and the next six months will tell us a lot. I remain guardedly hopeful.” (New York Times, 12/21/05)

“I think that we’re going to know after six to nine months whether this project has any chance of succeeding. In which case, I think the American people as a whole will want to play it out or whether it really is a fool’s errand.” (Oprah Winfrey Show, 1/23/06)

“I think we’re in the end game there, in the next three to six months, Bob. We’ve got for the first time an Iraqi government elected on the basis of an Iraqi constitution. Either they’re going to produce the kind of inclusive consensual government that we aspire to in the near term, in which case America will stick with it, or they’re not, in which case I think the bottom’s going to fall out.” (CBS, 1/31/06)

“I think we are in the end game. The next six to nine months are going to tell whether we can produce a decent outcome in Iraq.” (NBC’s Today, 3/2/06)

“Can Iraqis get this government together? If they do, I think the American public will continue to want to support the effort there to try to produce a decent, stable Iraq. But if they don’t, then I think the bottom is going to fall out of public support here for the whole Iraq endeavor. So one way or another, I think we’re in the end game in the sense it’s going to be decided in the next weeks or months whether there’s an Iraq there worth investing in. And that is something only Iraqis can tell us.”
(CNN, 4/23/06)

“Well, I think that we’re going to find out, Chris, in the next year to six months—probably sooner—whether a decent outcome is possible there, and I think we’re going to have to just let this play out.” (MSNBC’s Hardball, 5/11/06)

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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:

    Now we’re back to where I was in 2003. My estimate back then was that a ten year (or even a generation-long) commitment would be necessary to stabilize the country and I didn’t see political support here for that sort of commitment nor did I see the Administration cultivating it.

    I don’t have TimesSelect but I thought that the really interesting snippet was “and try to stabilize it some other way”. That’s the part that I’ve been trying to solicit opinion on for some months over at The Glittering Eye for some months now without getting much in the way of response.

    Assuming that withdrawal from Iraq is inevitable what in the way of U. S. interests in Iraq and in the region can be salvaged and how can that be done? Honestly, I don’t see much.

    This is all the more timely given the broad hints (not to mention flat statements) that the Saudis have been making today and over the last few weeks.

  2. legion says:

    Friedman is one of many,many pundits that have been so utterly wrong, so many times, about everything related to Iraq, that it amazes me anyone still listens to them…

  3. Anderson says:

    the NYT’s “Select” feature has, as widely predicted in the blogosphere, rendered such voices as Friedman’s amazingly marginal

    Yes, and that’s the *only* good thing about Select. Well, and David Brooks.

  4. Duke S says:

    The Perfect Gift – Friedman (Unit) Gift Cards & Certificates
    Give the gift of time today!