Iraq: A Glass Half-Empty or Half-Full

 Secretary of State Rice Condoleezza Rice, having arrived surreptitiously in Baghdad (presumably to avoid warning those Iraqis who might greet her with anti-aricraft missiles), announced today that the U.S. and Iraqi governments had reached a tentative new agreement on U.S. troops presence in Iraq after the UN mandate runs out. Under the new Status of Force Agreement (SOFA), the U.S. will remove all combat troops from Iraqi cities by June 2009 and all troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. The latter “aspirational timetable” depends on a determination (by someone unspecified) that conditions are “right” to allow that withdrawal. Whether US cfroces will be subject to Iraqi authority when they are accused of breaking laws is left unsettled in the agreed framework, and the Iraqis have to ratify the agreement, which is less than a slam dunk. Nevertheless, it sounds suspiciously like the Bush administration caved in to demands from the Iraqis that they either set a deadline or get no agreement. Setting a deadline also smells a bit like a victory for the Obama position, although the date is a year later than he prefers.

The kicker, of course, is whether conditions on the ground are right. General David Petraeus said earlier this week that progress has been made, but that it is “fragile” and “reversible.” The situation is, and will be in 2011, one or the other, and the assessment is likely to depend critically on who is making the judgment. Will they see the glass as half-full (an optimistic judgment about the situation “on the ground”) or half-empty (fragility likely to shatter if we leave)?

The answer is probably partisan. General Petraeus, as a military person, is trained to look at things critically, which in this case means skeptically. If there is any real possibility things could go amok, he is professionally predisposed to say don’t do it! John McCain, who has promised troops out by 2013 after we have “won,” will also likely look at 2011 as too premature for fragility to have been replaced by stability. Both are almost certainly “glass half-empty”ers (I realize that is probably not a word). Barack Obama, on the other hand, has already declared the ground will be ripe for withdrawal a year earlier than 2011, and thus is likely to make the glass half-full judgment that we can indeed leave. The situation on the ground is likely to be sufficiently ambiguous that with position can be sustained while the judgment is being made. Only in the aftermath and amid the consequences of the decision can one really know the conditions of the glass. Half full? Half empty?

The Iraqis, who are increasingly anxious to have the Americans out of their country, may torpedo this whole thing by refusing to ratify the agreement and insist on negotiating a more concrete, less conditional, and earlier withdrawal “time horizon,” at which point the glass will be half full by definition, whether it is or not in fact. In some ways, getting the bum’s rush from the Iraqis would solve everybody’s problem, because regardless of how things turn out, the Iraqis can be blamed for that outcome.

There is, of course, one other aspect of this. The glass analogy generally connotes that the liquid is water; in the case of Iraq, it is arguable that the fluid is actually oil. Does that change the calculation of half-empty or half-full? Just a thought.

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