No Magic Bullets For Iraq

Anne Applebaum captures the quandry of Iraq War policy

Out in the world, there are shades of gray. Here inside the Beltway, there are black-and-white solutions. And everybody who is anybody has a plan for Iraq.

Hillary Clinton has a three-point plan; Barack Obama has a “move the soldiers from Iraq to Afghanistan” plan. House Democrats have a plan to take most troops out by next March; Senate Democrats have a plan to take them out by April. Some Senate Republicans want the president to shrink the size of the U.S. military in Iraq; other Senate Republicans want to let the surge run its course. Search the Web, listen to the radio and watch the news, and you can hear people arguing that if only we had more troops, fewer troops or no troops at all, everything would be okay again.

What is missing from this conversation is a dose of humility. More to the point, what is missing is the recognition that every single one of these plans contains the seeds of potential disaster, even catastrophe.

She then sketches out the pitfalls of each plan:

More troops? I hardly need to elaborate on what’s wrong with that plan, since so many in Congress do so every day. But for the record, I’ll repeat the obvious: More troops means more American casualties, maybe many more casualties. Worse, the very presence of American soldiers creates strife in some parts of Iraq — angering Iraqis, motivating al-Qaeda, sparking violence. Besides, we’ve tried the surge, and the surge hasn’t brought the results we wanted. And, anyway, the surge simply can’t be maintained, let alone expanded: There aren’t that many more troops to send, even if we wanted to send them.

Fewer troops? This plan sounds like a reasonable compromise: neither surge nor cut-and-run, just leaving a few guys on the ground to train the Iraqis, guard the border and fight the terrorists. It also sounds a touch naive: So, in the midst of a vast civil war, small groups of Americans will withdraw to some neutral outposts and announce that they would no longer like to be shot at, please? Both “guarding the border” and “fighting terrorism” are hard to do effectively without involving ourselves in wider political and ethnic struggles.

There is also trouble with the “train the Iraqis” part of the plan, as Stephen Biddle spelled out in The Post last week, since “training Iraqis” invariably puts us in the middle of military conflict. Besides, fewer Americans could mean more Iraqi violence; more Iraqi violence could mean more American casualties — not to mention more Iraqi casualties — which defeats the purpose of the plan altogether.

No troops? Though deeply appealing to the “we told you so” crowd, this plan is clothed in the greatest degree of hypocrisy. How many of the people who clamor for intervention in Darfur will also be clamoring to rush back into Iraq when full-scale ethnic cleansing starts taking place? How many will take responsibility for the victims of genocide? I’m not saying there will be such a catastrophe, but there could be: Mass ethnic murders have certainly been carried out in Iraq before. Other possibilities include the creation of an Iranian puppet state or an al-Qaeda outlaw state; or there might merely be a regional war involving, say, Turkey, Iran, Syria, Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, just for starters, and maybe Israel and the Gaza Strip as well. Perhaps these things would never have happened if we hadn’t gone there in the first place — but if we leave, we’ll be morally responsible.

Given that those four options would seem to exhaust all of them but “continue what we’re doing now,” Applebaum doesn’t have a plan, either. She seems to come down to “muddle through.”

Of course, I don’t want to exaggerate. There are people who know that there is no perfect solution for Iraq. However, they tend not to be people who are running for the presidency or any other public office. Last weekend, I met a Marine about to depart for his second tour in Iraq. He wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about going, nor was he particularly optimistic about what could be achieved. But he wasn’t demanding to stay home, either. If nothing else, he felt obliged to stick by the many Iraqis who had helped the Marines and who might well be murdered if the Marines left for good.

Dodd Harris argued on last night’s edition of OTB Radio that we have a moral obligation to the Iraqis to help them clean up the mess that we made. “We owe it to them” is not a grand strategy for winning a war. It certainly would not be enough to convince many of us to go to war, which is why we’re not in places like Darfur. But, once we’ve actually gone in and created a killing zone, it’s a rather powerful argument for staying.

The question, though, is for how long. Few serious people think we can win this thing; certainly not by September or even next spring. How long, then, do we continue to ask American forces to risk death to pay off bad debt?

UPDATE: Jim Henley pronounces Applebaum’s piece “the stupidest column anyone has ever written for any venue.” He’s especially not fond of the “but Darfur!” argument against withdrawal citing the fact that “we still don’t have troops in Darfur” as evidence that “Darfur hawks do not hold the whip hand in American politics.” A fair point.

Then again, her argument isn’t merely the hypocrisy trope but that the Iraqi-on-Iraqi killing now taking place could quite conceivably ignite into something truly scary in the absence of American troops providing disincentives. Of course, we really have no idea.

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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. Bithead says:

    More troops? I hardly need to elaborate on what’s wrong with that plan, since so many in Congress do so every day. But for the record, I’ll repeat the obvious: More troops means more American casualties, maybe many more casualties.

    So, are we to assume that Annie has never heard of safety in numbers?

    Fewer troops? This plan sounds like a reasonable compromise: neither surge nor cut-and-run, just leaving a few guys on the ground to train the Iraqis, guard the border and fight the terrorists. It also sounds a touch naive: So, in the midst of a vast civil war, small groups of Americans will withdraw to some neutral outposts and announce that they would no longer like to be shot at, please? Both “guarding the border” and “fighting terrorism” are hard to do effectively without involving ourselves in wider political and ethnic struggles.

    What she doesn’t mention, is what she didn’t consider our first para; fewer troops means more danger. And more casualties.

    She’s usually pretty good, is Annie. I suppose we all have our off days. This was hers.

  2. James Joyner says:

    So, are we to assume that Annie has never heard of safety in numbers?

    That’s true in, say, a gang fight. Or sending cops in to break up a riot. It’s not true, though, against an ambush or a suicide bomber.

    More troops may, over time, mean more security. In the short run, though, it means more targets.

  3. Alex Knapp says:

    Dodd Harris argued on last night’s edition of OTB Radio that we have a moral obligation to the Iraqis to help them clean up the mess that we made.

    Considering that Iraq is now in a de facto state of civil war, I think that the “mess” isn’t really our doing any longer.

  4. James Joyner says:

    Considering that Iraq is now in a de facto state of civil war, I think that the “mess” isn’t really our doing any longer.

    It’s neither our doing nor, really, even our fault. But, were it not for our invasion, it wouldn’t be happening, either. So we laid the conditions for it.

    More importantly, as Applebaum’s Marine points out, people have risked their very lives by siding with us. If we pull out, their support system goes with us. At the very least, we owe them safe passage.

  5. Jim Henley says:

    Dodd Harris’ evidence that we are capable of “cleaning up the mess we made” would be?

  6. Anderson says:

    There are people who know that there is no perfect solution for Iraq. However, they tend not to be people who are running for the presidency or any other public office.

    What a nasty creature Appelbaum has become. Name one serious presidential candidate for 2008, Republican or Democrat, who thinks there’s a “perfect solution for Iraq.” There isn’t one.

  7. Andy says:

    If staying is so important, let’s just start increasing taxes on all Americans, right now, to cover all war costs. Every few months, we add an extra few hundred dollars in war tax.

    It’s the economically efficient way to determine the value of the war.

  8. Michael says:

    So, are we to assume that Annie has never heard of safety in numbers?

    Yeah, unfortunately bullets can’t be intimidated by you bringing along all your buddies. In this situation, “safety in numbers” only means that the more of your buddies you bring, the better statistical chance you have of them being shot instead of you.

    So basically everyone is saying that all of the solutions suck, then they all advocate for the sucky solution they like best? Are these really the only solutions we can come up with?

  9. Anjin-San says:

    I am afraid that I see no road that leads to a good outcome. Bush has us, and the people of Iraq, well and truly screwed. His only policy at this point seems to be to make sure the next stage of his disaster takes place on someone else’s watch, no matter how many have to die to buy him that time.

  10. Barry says:

    James: “Dodd Harris argued on last night’s edition of OTB Radio that we have a moral obligation to the Iraqis to help them clean up the mess that we made. “We owe it to them” is not a grand strategy for winning a war. It certainly would not be enough to convince many of us to go to war, which is why we’re not in places like Darfur. But, once we’ve actually gone in and created a killing zone, it’s a rather powerful argument for staying.”

    It’s a rather bad argument for staying, because the guys who will be in charge are the same guys who got us to the present situation. And who haven’t been punished worth sh*t for doing so – their incentives are not aligned with doing it right, IMHO.

  11. Barry says:

    As usual, Jim Henley says it best. Perhaps he should get an honorary Poli Sci Ph.D.

    Heh – I was updating the post with a link to Henley’s argument while you were typing the comment, apparently. – jhj

  12. Paul says:

    I certainly agree that “What is missing from this conversation is a dose of humility,” but isn’t she making a very big omission?? (Bush, 5 years running). One of the sad ironies in the Middle East is that even if there was, as someone above put it, a “perfect answer,” that answer could automatically become imperfected by association with the United States. He didn’t invent American arrogance in foreign policy, but he certainly has layered on a very thick fresh new coat of neon paint in a design that looks something like a bullseye in the textbooks of the madrassas.

    Back in 2004, I thought the superficial face-saving exit stragegy would be to let the Iraqis vote on a referendum. Should US troops stay or go. If they told us to go, we could say we went to Iraq to establish a democracy and we gave them what they wanted. If they told us to stay, that would at least count for something if we did.

  13. The few, the proud, the serious who believe we can win in Iraq, if I may be so bold. Of course, it will take many years. More years in fact than have been taken by those who in opposition to the liberation of Iraq have done their best to make Iraq into “Vietnam all over again, man.”

    They may well succeed. And at that point it may be worthwhile asking if what happened after our departure from Vietnam is destined to happen again. Will they assume credit or blame for the betrayal and subsequent slaughter of those that have sided with the US in Iraq, perhaps a new set of killing fields in Northern Iraq, a nuclear Iran in ascendence in the Middle East, a propaganda victory for the fanatical elements of Islam, another serious decline in our military that may take yet another generation to repair, and the final nail in the coffin that the United States can ever be counted on politically to see anything difficult through to completion again?

    At times it is useful to remember that the reason we find ourselves up to our asses in alligators is because we set out to drain the swamp.

  14. lunacy says:

    I agree with Charles. And Dodd.

    I’ve been reading OBT for some time now. I must say I’ve been increasingly disappointed in the manner or tone with which James speaks of Iraq.

    I agree with Barnett in today’s WSJ.

    “Naturally, the libertarians who supported the war in Iraq are disappointed, though hardly shocked, that it was so badly executed. The Bush administration might be faulted, not so much for its initial errors which occur in any war against a determined foe who adjusts creatively to any preconceived central “plan,” but for its dogged refusal to alter its approach–and promptly replace its military commanders as President Lincoln did repeatedly–when it became clear that its tactics were not working. This prolonged delay gave the enemy time to better organize its resistance and, perhaps most important, demoralized those Americans who had initially supported the war but who needed to see continued progress toward victory to maintain their support.

    Still, there are those pro-invasion libertarians who are now following the progress of Operations Phantom Thunder and Arrowhead Ripper. They hope that the early signs of progress in this offensive will continue, so that American and Iraqi forces can achieve the military victory necessary to allow the Iraqi government to assume responsibility for protecting the Iraqi people from terrorists, as well as from religious sectarian violence. They hope this success will enable American soldiers to leave Iraq even before they leave Europe and Korea, and regain the early momentum that led, for example, to Libya’s abandonment of its nuclear weapons program.

    These libertarians are still rooting for success in Iraq because it would make Americans more safe, while defeat would greatly undermine the fight against those who declared war on the U.S. ”

    Personally, I’m disappointed that Bush couldn’t appoint MacArthur to Iraq right after we toppled Saddam. But I’m not ready to give up yet as I think the long term consequences would cost us far more than you guys care to imagine or admit.

    And part of me thinks that, yes, many on the left do hope for defeat. Was it Bithead who admitted he believed this a week or so ago? I agree with him, too. Or whoever it was who said, “Yes” regarding Democrats and treason.

    Political expedience despite the cost. Not all on the left. Some on the left. And now some on the right.

    We’ll see how that pans out for Luger and Warner, et al

    L

  15. Barry says:

    “At times it is useful to remember that the reason we find ourselves up to our asses in alligators is because we set out to drain the swamp.”

    Posted by charles austin

    Wrong – we set out to topple Saddam – we then created the swamp.

  16. Barry says:

    James,

    One of the many bloggers piling onto Anne summarized her argument as ‘all alternatives are bad – therefore, we must continue doing what we are doing now.’.

    I think that it *is* a powerful argument, but in the sense of fooling those who don’t think. It’s rather poor logic, IMHO.