Choosing among Lousy Choices in Iraq

Thomas L. Friedman’s weekend New York Times column reminded the reader of two things. Printed in my hometown paper–the (Hilton Head, SC) Island Packet as”Let’s Start Talking about How to Leave Iraq Without Losing Everything on June 22, 2008–its reminders were that the political dialogue has provided stark but underdeveloped policy positions from McCain and Obama on the subject, and that choosing among the alternatives is likely to be a difficult task, since both positions have problems associated with them.

Friedman suggests there are three cogent variables in the current mix. The first is public opposition to continuing the war that makes an indefinite continuing commitment politically untenable. The base of this observation is the unbearable costs both to the military and the economy of continuing the war. The second is the evidence of progress in the field. Things are better in Iraq, Friedman offers, but adds, “It is still not clear that Iraq is a country that can be held together by anything other than an iron fist.” Linear projections of progress, in other words, are suspicious. The third observation is that a precipitous withdrawal would be injurious, because the country has not reached a point where its “stability is self-sustaining.”

Like most of what Friedman has to say, there are no revelations here, but rather a summation of that part of public opinion that wants to see an end to American involvement but fears the consequences of withdrawal–a fairly sizable part of the population. A quick look at his assumptions, however, is useful to clarify the bad options the U.S. has in ending the imbroglio.

The first comment is that the observations are of varying empirical content. That the American people are tired of Iraq and want out is unassailable–there is lots of factual evidence to support it. The other two oservations, however, are less grounded in observed reality. There are indeed measures that suggest things are better (if less violence against Americans is the main criterion of better), but not why this is the case or whether it will continue. That Iraq would deteriorate without an American “referee” to monitor progress is an extrapolation into the future without clearly compelling empirical base. It might be true, and it might be false, but an argument can be made in either direction.

What, then, are the lousy choices among which to choose? There are three. One (call it the Obama option) is to set a reasonably short timetable for leaving and adhere to it. That option is clearly politically popular in the United States, but it comes with drawbacks. Once the United States withdraws (exactly what that means depends on the outcome of the SOFA negotiations), it will lose influence in Iraq, with three possible consequences. The result could be internal Iraqi chaos the United States would not be in a position to reverse. A new government in Iraq lacking American troops looking over its shoulder might reverse the oil leasing negotiations noted here last week and admit other oil interests or, at worst, kick the U.S. out again. If either of these things happen, the result could be a negative political backlash in the United States. Of course, the American people may also be so grateful to get out that they simply do not care what happens when the U.S. is gone, but that is a chance.

The second possibility (the McCain option) is to stay until something like “victory” (currently defined as a stable, self-sufficient Iraq) is achieved. This option also has problems. It would be unpopular virtually everywhere–in the United States, in Iraq, and among American allies. It would also mean the continuation of ruinous economic and human costs as the goal is pursued. That pursuit is made more difficult because there are no certainties that it can be achieved. If the option is pursued and fails, there are high political costs as well.

The third possibility is to let things slide. This option (the stay/leave option) suggests that the United States should neither commit to a long-term involvement nor set a short timetable for withdrawal. Rather, it would suggest, Iraqification-style, that the United States is committed to leaving but only when the time is “right” (purposely left vague). That is pretty much what is happening today, and is a compromise that seeks minimally to avoid antagoniing either side, at least until the election is over. Whether it is viable depends on whether a point of departure that turns out to be more satisfactory than its parallel in Vietnam is attainable. If the U.S. stays awhile longer and still fails, supporters of this option will have to answer the ire of those who say the U.S. could have pulled out much earlier and gotten the same result. If it succeeds, supporters can say “we told you so.” The problem is not knowing which result the option will yield. 

All the options are lousy, because each has potentially negative political consequences, and the future of Iraq is sufficiently opaque that one cannot confidently predict which option will hold. Pick your posion! 

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One Response to “Choosing among Lousy Choices in Iraq”

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