Two Deadlines, Two Bad Premises

John Kerry contends that Iraq is “in the middle of an escalating civil war” and offers a simple policy suggestion for dealing with it:

Iraqi politicians should be told that they have until May 15 to put together an effective unity government or we will immediately withdraw our military. If Iraqis aren’t willing to build a unity government in the five months since the election, they’re probably not willing to build one at all. The civil war will only get worse, and we will have no choice anyway but to leave.

If Iraq’s leaders succeed in putting together a government, then we must agree on another deadline: a schedule for withdrawing American combat forces by year’s end. Doing so will empower the new Iraqi leadership, put Iraqis in the position of running their own country and undermine support for the insurgency, which is fueled in large measure by the majority of Iraqis who want us to leave their country. Only troops essential to finishing the job of training Iraqi forces should remain.


For three years now, the administration has told us that terrible things will happen if we get tough with the Iraqis. In fact, terrible things are happening now because we haven’t gotten tough enough. With two deadlines, we can change all that. We can put the American leadership on the side of our soldiers and push the Iraqi leadership to do what only it can do: build a democracy.

This is a variant of the John Murtha strategy and has become the spreading meme of the Democratic security machine. It has the virtues of being 1) a plan, which is more than Kerry seemed to have while running for president and 2) simple.

It has been said that, for every complex problem, there is at least one solution that is simple, easy to explain, and completely wrong. This may well be it for the Iraq War.

It begins from a reasonable enough premise: Things are not going as well in Iraq as we would like and the path we are now on has no end in sight. Unfortunately, it also relies on at least two additional premises, neither of which have the virtue of being correct.

First, Kerry contends that the Iraqis have taken so long to form a government because they “aren’t willing.” While I agree that the process has been maddeningly slow, it is obvious that they have been constantly negotiating for months. The problem, however, is that Iraq is a very diverse society with numerous reinforcing cleavages [*] which has been exacerbated by the adoption of a painfully complex proportional representation election scheme that allowed each electoral faction to chose a satisfying but too small electoral slate. Furthermore, these representatives are in a society with no history of democratic back-and-forth and no institutionalized trust. Italy had essentially the same problems, to a much lesser degree, following World War Two and still hasn’t solved them.

Second, Kerry believes deadlines force people to get things done without negative side effects. The first part of that is true, as the recent NFL labor deal demonstrated. The second part is not. By setting a deadline for departure of American troops, one merely incentivizes the guerrillas to rest up. After all, why get killed targeting highly trained American troops when one can simply wait a few months and take on comparatively green Iraqi forces?

It’s true that Kerry’s plan, like Murtha’s, calls for placing our troops in “garrison” for “emergency response.” While that sounds well and good, the political fact of the matter is that, once out, there is no going back in. If we are going to cut and run from “an escalating civil war” that we helped create, we surely would not try to impose ourself into a full blown civil war that developed after our departure.

Indeed, if Kerry actually supported doing that, then he concedes that the present mission itself is worthwhile and worth the risk of American lives. If not, why would he suggest that “emergency response,” which would involve the need for a very risky re-insertion, was worth doing? What would be the nature of the “emergency” that would justify the risk that is not now extant?

Kerry then invokes the D-word:

For this transition to work, we must finally begin to engage in genuine diplomacy. We must immediately bring the leaders of the Iraqi factions together at a Dayton Accords-like summit meeting. In a neutral setting, Iraqis, working with our allies, the Arab League and the United Nations, would be compelled to reach a political agreement that includes security guarantees, the dismantling of the militias and shared goals for reconstruction.

This is rather bewildering because the administration is already applying substantial diplomatic pressure, including trying to get Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to step aside, removing one of the major remaining obstacles. And, frankly, adding the additional factional interests of the UN and the Arab League (which is increasingly radicalized) to the mix would not be helpful. Both institutions would, to cite one issue, greatly complicate negotiations with the Kurds.

David Ignatius gets it right:

[I]t would be folly if American impatience torpedoed the slow but real progress Iraqi leaders are making toward a government that could step back from the brink of civil war. “We need to be patient to get it right,” Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told me in a telephone interview yesterday. “Their concept of time is not the same as ours. While we press them to hurry up, the American people also need to be patient.”

Quite right. The rest of his column details both the very real progress that has been made–the basic outline for a governmental system has been agreed to by all the major parties–and the real problems which will need time to be resolved, notably the personal issues of who gets what jobs. That’s going to take time, to be sure, but will happen.

Update: Jon Henke believes the piece deserves “serious consideration” even though he disagrees with unspecified parts of it.

Richard Fernandez has a long review essay excerpting from several worthwhile articles recently published. One paragraph in particular is worth highlighting:

[T]he Sunni leaders appear to have accepted, in principle at least, that they are no longer dominant; simply one of the parties in Iraq. This suggests they have signed on to the Iraqi constitutional roadmap in theory. But every party still has grave reservations over whether the others can be trusted. That is why the rest of the package consists of a series of checks and balances to ensure that no one group controls the security forces, and prevents their use without the unanimous consensus of all parties. (Like the UN Security Council). But quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will make sure the rules are followed? The United States, apparently.

That seems to be the plan, anyway. While the presence of U.S. troops undoubtedly complicates matters tremendously, they are also undeniably a security presence that most of the major players at least begrudgingly accept. Ignatius closes his piece with a quote from Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi ambassador to Washington: “America came to Iraq uninvited. You should not leave uninvited.”

Or, to use a quote often attributed to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, “You broke it, you bought it.”

As an aside, Kevin Drum is right when he criticizes the administration for trying to do Iraqi democracy on the cheap. It’s a longstanding problem [see here and here] that is quite inexplicable given that this is the policy by which the Bush presidency will be judged.

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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. ken says:

    I have all the patience in the world regarding the time the Iraqis need to form a government and learn the practice of democracy.

    What I don’t have is any more patience for is spending my money and wasting my army on this project.

    If conservatives want to continue their involvement with the internal affairs of Iraq they can do so without any further use of American assets. No one is going to stop them from leaving America and joining one Iraqi faction or another. We couldn’t care less what they do on their own.

    Kerry is right. Bring my army home.

  2. It’s time to cut the Shi’ite and Sunni Arabs loose and focus on the recognition of the democratic state of Kurdistan. It will let the Arabs of the region know that if they don’t work to free and govern themselves responsibly, we can’t do it for them.

    Added bonus – it will destabilize Iran, Syria, and the Trojan Horse of Anatolia: Turkey.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Ken: But that’s not what Kerry is saying. That may be what he’s thinking, but not what he wrote.

  4. ken says:

    James, you are right, the Democratic politicians are not yet calling for the soldiers to return home. Right now they just want a sensible redeployment. Given the mess Bush created in Iraq most of us would settle for redeployment in the hopes that it would allow for a full withdrawl later. This is probably the best option open to America right now.

  5. James Joyner says:


    But I explained in the post why I think such a redeployment isn’t “sensible.” If it’s just cover for withdrawal, then it’s a gutless policy. If it’s really supposed to be a mere redeployment, it makes no tactical sense.

  6. MrGone says:

    This is all pretty funny. The US has no intention of leaving Iraq. Why do you think we’re building permanent bases there? It doesn’t matter if they’re in a civil war. We’re there for the oil. Plain and simple. Until the oil is gone, the US will continue to have a permanent presence there. In fact, if the Iraqi goverment were to get it’s act together, they may very well kick us out. So, it’s actually in the US interest to have this continuing low grade warfare.

    And, guess what? Who’s next? Hmmm, ya know, Iran just so happens to have the second largest proved reserves. How convenient! Why should we be so concerned about Iran having nukes in five years when N. Korea already has them? Oh, N. Korea oil reserves = 0. Is Iran really that much more of a threat? Do the math folks. We need to wake up to the fact that we are indeed running out of “cheap” oil and having control over the remaining reserves is THE national security issue. i.e. GWOT=smoke screen. Welcome to the age of the resource wars.

  7. Radi says:

    As an aside, Kevin Drum is right when he criticizes the administration for trying to do Iraqi democracy on the cheap

    I am not sure about your characterization of Drum’s criticism, James. His main point is that Bush doesn’t give a damn about democracy in Iraq (and the middle east, for that matter)–Drumm argues that the record shows that he never has. Is this what you are agreeing with?

  8. McGehee says:

    Welcome to the age of the resource wars.

    When hot air becomes the most cost-effective source of energy, watch out.

  9. MrGone says:


    I know I should have expected that kind of response. To many, it sounds like one of those conspiracy-theory-nut-job rants. But after looking at all this for some time now, I can’t find any better rationale. And, as far as I can see, my theory is just as proven as yours. Just remember, this is starting now and will be in full swing within 5 years.

  10. MrGone says:


    If you’re right, it just proves that we have one of the most incompetant governments in history. If I’m right, our government is doing something that they should – protecting our national interests.

  11. Dan says:

    Things are not going as well in Iraq as we would likeThings are not going as well in Iraq as we would like…

    Things in Iraq are going a lot worse than that.

  12. Jim Henley says:

    James, “progress” is so slow toward forming a national unity government for two reasons:

    1. There’s no actual national unity. Unity governments require some underlying unity of purpose.

    2. The current incumbents don’t need progress. They’ve already got jobs. The checks keep coming in. They still get to feather their beds with patronage; the ones in charge of Things That Go Bang (Interior and Defense) still get to attack their enemies and the ones in charge of Raking In Gobs Of Cash (Oil and Construction) still get to skim the cream off the top of ministerial business.

    Actually agreeing to a new government puts the power and perqs of the “interim” regime members at risk. If there were some “accountability moment” looming – frex, if failure to form a government in, oh, 90 days meant a new round of elections in which the principals risked discipline at the hands of a disgruntled electorate – they’d have some incentive to make a deal, but so far as I know there is no such provision.

    That’s why Straw and Rice are a lot more anxious to get a new government officially formed than Messrs Jafaari and Jabr (among others). For the latter two, there’s nowhere to go but down.

    Kerry’s plan, for all its flaws, at least provides a stick to thwack Iraq’s elites into doing what we at least theoretically want: get their act together on normalizing the country’s governance.

  13. James Joyner says:


    The incentive argument is plausible, to be sure. But deadlines are double edged.

    Basically, we give the terrorists even more incentive to disrupt things if all they have to do is run out the clock for six weeks. A couple of well timed attacks could surely derail things past the magic May 15 deadline.

  14. Jim Henley says:

    Wait, James, would these well-timed attacks be before May 15 or after?

  15. James Joyner says:

    Probably both. But the ones after would go unanswered since we aren’t there.

    Without a deadline the attacks are just bumps in the road. With, anything that pushed negotiations past May 15 equals Game Over.

  16. Jim Henley says:

    K, in your main post you suggested that the insurgents’ natural reaction would be to rest up until after the US left. Now you’re talking about them possibly wanting to launch a couple of spectacular attacks *before* the US leaves. I got confused.

  17. James Joyner says:


    Ah. Well, there’s two deadlines in Kerry’s suggestion. In the post, I was reacting mostly to the second but in my response to you I was reacting to the first.

    So, the May 15 deadline would likely cause and increase in attacks to make it harder to meet.

    But let’s say they meet it anyway. The second deadline would create a different incentive–to keep their powder dry until the U.S. forces left, under the reasonable assumption they wouldn’t be coming back.

  18. davod says:

    Don’t switch me off when I say this but look at what Kerry did with the North Vietnamese. He attended at least two briefings with the North in Paris.

    He is doing it again. The ratbags have lost in Iraq. They are making a lot of noise and killing people but essentially they have lost.

    He wants to get everyone together and have a conference. He wants to give credibility to those who deserve condemnation.

    He has gone back to the 70s. A conference will extend the killing and give the ratbags hope that they can reverse three elections.

  19. McGehee says:

    And, as far as I can see, my theory is just as proven as yours.

    What theory did I express?

    The fact you even saw a theory in my empty snarky remark, should tell you something.