Archive for the Iraq and Troop Levels Category

Happy Holidays from Baghdad!

Posted in Current Events in Iraq, Getting out of Iraq, Iraq and Troop Levels, Iraq War with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 22, 2011 by whatafteriraq

Depressingly, it has not taken long for things to begin to show signs of unravelling in Iraq. Less than a week after the last American combat vehicle passed the frontier into Kuwait, the first crisis has emerged. It is no surprise that things are coming undone, of course; this blog has been part of a chorus for some time arguing that things would turn bad in that country after the United States and regardless of when the United States leaves. The only surprise is how fast the fissures have reopened; one would have hoped the partisans would at least have waited until after the eggnog was drunk and the presents under the tree opened. But that clearly was not meant to be.

The source of the fissure has been the newest dispute between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s regime and the highest elected Sunni in the country,Tariq al-Hashemi, head of the al-Iraqiya party. The focus of the dispute is Shiite accusations that Hashemi and his associates engineered the murders of numerous Shiites, a charge that Hashemi says are both false and politically motivated, arguing that in making these accusations Maliki “pushes things in the direction of no return.” Not trusting the police and courts in Baghdad, Hashemi has taken refuge in Kurdistan, which has offered him effective asylum and which he uses as a platform from which to excoriate the Maliki government. His basic argument is that the charges are politically motivated, untrue, and that he could not receive a fair trial in Baghdad with its pro-Shiite, pro-Maliki courts that do not, in his words, offer adequate “transparency.”

This dispute highlights two of the most basic sources of division in Iraq that many of us have argued since before the 2003 invasion provided more than adequate reason not to invade in the first place. The heart of the disagreement is an entirely predictable confrontation between Sunnis and Shiites, the basic religious divide in Islam. The net effect of 8 1/2 years of American involvement in Iraq has been to shift power from a tyrannical Sunni dictator to what is increasingly looking like a Shiite dictator–an absolutely predictable outcome of our insistence on one-man,one-vote “democracy” is a country that is over 60 percent Shiite. Now that whatever restraint our presence had on the competition has been removed, the Sunnis and Shiites are fighting again. What a surprise!

The other dimension is territorial, the division between the Kurdish north and the rest of Iraq along ethnic and territorial lines. Although supporters of the war were always loath to admit it, Iraqi Kurdistan has been a de facto independent states for several years now, with very little Baghdad jurisdiction over what goes on there. The fact that Hashemi would seek refuge in Kurdistan and that the government would feel the need to negotiate about the Kurds turning him over rather than simply arresting him in what is, after all, officially part of Iraq tells you everything you need to know about the territorial integrity of the country. Until some agreement is reached on the division of oil revenues in the country, this status quo will continue. It is probably true that the only reason Kurdistan has not declared formal independence is strong opposition from surrounding countries with contiguous Kurdish minorities who would probably move to join such a state. Turkey, with the area’s largest and most formidable armed forces heads the lists of opponents which could, unlike the government in Baghdad, establish its sway over the Kurdish region if adequately incited to do so.

All this is playing out without great notice in the United States. The crisis emerging over the holiday season probably explains part of this–as most of us are more concerned about old Saint Nick than we are about Iraq. Indeed, the Obama administration may have made sure all the troops were out before Christmas because it knew things would blow up and wanted that to occur when we were not paying attention.

The only American politician who seems to have noticed is John McCain, whose response has been entirely predictable, arguing that the fault lies with the Obama administration for removing all the troops when it did. His argument, which he seems to apply most everywhere, is that if we kept a military presence in Iraq, it would not be blowing up today. The same argument was used in Vietnam, but misses the point that regardless of how long we stay, the divisions are going to remain and will boil over whenever our departure occurs. The Iraqis, on the other hand, realize that now that we are gone, we are not coming back, so they can revert to form.

Anyone who can make a straight line projection of the current dust up to the final outcome in Iraq has either been drinking too much eggnog or eggnog spiked with illegal substances. The current brouhaha is, more likely, simply the opening chorus of a much longer and more traumatic outcome, the exact nature of which is impossible to predict. What is safe to suggest is that it will not work out the way that George Bush, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, et. al. predicted back in the early summer of 2003.

Merry Baghdad to all, and to all a good night!


The GOP Candidates and Iraq

Posted in Current Events in Iraq, Diplomacy, Getting out of Iraq, Iran and Iraq, Iraq and Election, Iraq and Troop Levels, Iraq War, Leaving Iraq with tags , , , , , on October 23, 2011 by whatafteriraq

If ignorance is indeed bliss, the GOP candidates for president in 2012 demonstrated that they must be the most contented lot in the world after their pronouncements about President Obama’s announcement this past week that the United States would end all military operations in Iraq by the end of the year. The stupendous ignorance of the facts demonstrated by the GOP field regarding how and why this ending will occur is breathtaking; it is also a sobering reminder of what foreign policy might look like should one of them somehow become commander-in-chief. Of that latter prospect, only the most ardent neo-conservative could possibly take take solace in the prospect.

What was the collective accusation? It was that somehow Obama had acted in a way that somehow would cause the United States to quit the field in Iraq, thereby submitting the United States and the region and world to great potential peril, since we will no longer be able to maintain some semblance of control there when all our troops (other than the Marines guarding the embassy) are gone–in time for the holidays, according to the administration.

That statement, which is of course a composite, has four distinct parts, two of which are clearly false or misleading, and two of which are arguable. Let’s look at each.

1. It was an action by Obama that has caused this situation. This assertion is, of course, necessary to blame the White House for something–which of course is the partisan putpose anyway–and it is patently false. The reason the U.S. will leave Iraq at the end of the year is because the Iraqis want us out. This is hardly a revelation, and it has been enshrined in an agreement signed by President Bush with the Iraqi government in December 2008 that called for withdrawal by the end of this year. The al-Malaki government views this requirement as a bedrock of their mandate, and it has been a condition and date that has existed–and been publicly known–for over three years.

The only way that treaty obligation could have been modified or moderated was through the negotiation of a new agreement with the Iraqis to allow some number of Americans to stay after the end of the year. The U.S. has indeed been trying to do so to allow a token force to stay behind, but those negotiations foundered on a critical provision of the Status of Force Agreement (SOFA) that would have been necessary to extend the American presence: a provision that American forces be exempted from prosecution of alleged offenses under Iraqi law (a standard item of SOFAs the U.S. has with foreign governments). THE IRAQIS REFUSED TO ACCEPT THIS STIPULATION, and this is why the U.S. is leaving. There were probably two reasons for the Iraqi position: 1) they wanted us to leave, and knew this would force us out, and 2) given the track record of some Americans on the scene, they did not trust us enough to make the concession (think Abu Ghraib). We are leaving because we could not conclude a successful SOFA, and there is no SOFA because the Iraqis refused to negotiated one. Period. End of story.

If one wants to blame the president for this, all one can argue (much too subtle for the current GOP field) is that the Obama administration, which also wants out of Iraq, did not try as hard as they might have to force the Iraqis to relent. That is at least arguable, although to be accepted, two additional elements are needed: proof the Obama people dragged their feet and evidence that a more assertive advocacy would have made a difference. The first is possible; the latter fantasy.

2. The U.S. action will leave American interests at peril. Specifically, the argument goes that an Iraq without an American presence will be subject to pressure from Iran and will be driven into the arms of Iran. This outcome is at least arguable on a number of grounds, and one can accept the notion that the postwar environment will leave Iran the clear winner in the American war against Iraq. What is very misleading about this assertion, however, is the idea that the U.S. decision to honor its treaty promises is the cause of this outcome. Iranian increased influence was probably the inevitable outcome of overthrowing Iran’s greatest single obstacles in the region, Saddam Hussein, and was cemented by by our eight year occupation. Iran is equally likely to benefit regardless of when the U.S. leaves; to blame it on honoring Bush’s commitment is pure demagogery.

3.  A continuing American presence would help stabilize the situation in Iraq, and their removal reduces the U.S. ability to influence the situation. Exactly how the retention of 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq is supposed to stabilize anything is not clear,except in the symbolism of their presence and the implied threat (a very hollow one) that they could be reinforced if need be by sending more back. It is true that American influence will wane somewhat with all our presence there, but it is pretty hard to contend that we have much influence there anymore anyway. For a sliver of evidence, how successful were we in keeping al-Maliki from endorsing the continuing rule of Bashar al-Assad in Syria?

4. If we are gone, who will protect the American contractors and aid workers left behind? This is a serious question, because the answer is the Iraqis will have to do so. If they want whatever goodies we are dispensing, they will do so; if getting rid of all the Americans is what they really want, they will not. One can only hope all the remaining Americans in the country are keeping packed bags under their beds. Having said that, 5,000 Americans in garrison are probably not much better equipped to protect and extract those Americans from danger than Marines or special forces on duty on ships in the Persian Gulf.

One need not be a particular supporter on Obama foreign policy to see that the withering criticism of his Iraq announcement was uncalled for, unfair, and displayed considerable ignorance on the part of those who made it. Up until now, the GOP  field has been remarkably quiet on foreign policy matters, and one can certainly see why in this cacophony of ignorance. If there is a bottom line to this sorry episode, it is a question: would anyone really like turning over America’s relations with the world to any of these bozos?  


Jockeying over Iraq

Posted in Current Events in Iraq, Foreign policy and 2008 election, Internal Violence in Iraq, Iraq and Troop Levels, Iraq War on January 29, 2009 by whatafteriraq

President Obama ventured into the lion’s den yesterday, visiting the Pentagon, over which he is now Commander-in-Chief. The highlight of his visit was a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Obama said a major purpose of his visit was to hear what the JCS thought about issues facing the United States. One of the issues discussed, unsurprisingly, was withdrawal from Iraq. Equally unsurprisingly, the military advisors cautioned against the 16-month deadline for total combat troop withdrawal on which the President ran in the election. The Army, in particular, thinks that is too fast and prefers (probably reluctantly) meeting the deadline of total troop withdrawal by the end of 2011 set in the Status of Force Agreement signed in Decebmer 200 that gives the military an extra 18 months or so in Iraq.

Why does the military feel this way? The answer is that they believe the longer the United States stays in Iraq, the more likely it is that Iraq will be a stable place that won’t revert to chaotic civil war after we leave. General Ray Odierno, in an interview yesterday, summarized the case: “The longer we go [staying country], if we get rhough the elections, we get closer and closer to not being able to backslide.”

The key assumption behind this logic is that American continued presence aids stabilization by creating a physical shield behind which the Iraqis reach the kind of political accord that would lead to a durable peace. Thus, Odierno maintains, US troops are needed to counter the “drivers of instability” such as Kurd-Arab competition over places like Kirkuk. The evidence for the viability of this approach is the surge.

This approach (it is hardly a strategy) is questionable. It starts from the assumption that the surge has “worked” to aid stability in the country, as witnessed by reduced casualty rates. That may be true, but it also may be false or misleading. True, violence is down, but why? One possible reason is the surge, but there are alternatives. One is that the United States essentially bought off the Sunni resistance by paying them to oppose Al Qaeda in Iraq and promised their integration into the Iraqi armed forces. The former occurred, the latter apparently is not, meaning continuing Sunni cooperation cannot be taken for granted. A second reason is that much of the violence between 2004 and the onset of the surge was really about ethnic cleansing of Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds out of one another’s claimed territories, a process largely completed by the time of the surge except in places like Kirkuk, where violence remains. American presence–except as Sunni paymaster–had little to do with either of these phenomena. If they, rather than the surge, were responsible for the reduction in violence, then the argument for slowing Obama’s withdrawal intentions is weakened.

But there is more to it than that. Odierno says he can imagine, at some unspecified point in the future, a time when the U.S. would only need about one-third of its current 140,000 troops in Iraq, hardly the President’s position. It is one thing for Odierno to say this in private as a statement of his beliefs; to say it publicly in opposition to his commander-in-chief’s known preferences borders on insubordination; it certainly lacks tact.

Why? Here the jockeying becomes obvious. It is no surprise that George W. Bush’s hand-picked Middle Eastern military team supports policies unlike those of Obama. Indeed, the Army, or at least Central Command, may sincerely believe that staying longer will yield a superior outcome, although that presumption is itself suspect. I would bet neither Odierno or David Petraeus voted for the president. So what? Their candidate lost, and if they take their oaths seriously, they will present their positions in private, wait for the President’s determination, then salute smartly and either carry out his orders or resign in protest. It really is as simple as that.

So why the public jockeying and posturing? Could it be that America’s supposedly apolitical military knows they have President Obama in a bad spot right now? Obama is in the middle of an increasingly political, partisan battle over the economy, and needs all the political capital he has for that issue. Publicly taking on the military right now would reinforce his opponents on the economy (largely the same group as his military detractors) and create more friction he clearly does not need. Thus, it may be that the proponents of prolonging the Iraq involvement feel they can get away with what amounts to defiance of their commander-in-chief.

In 1993, new President Bill Clinton got in trouble with the military hierarchy over gays in the military: the infamous “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Like Clinton, new President Obama is not particularly popular among the military brass, and defying their wishes on Iraqi withdrawal could be, or appear, parallel to Clinton overriding the military on gays. Clinton never really recovered from his early confrontation with the military, and Odierno et. al. may be calculating that President Obama may be reluctant to stir up a parallel hornet’s nest.

Will their strategy work? In the short term, it may well, and then we will see how long Obama’s memory is and how sharp his elbows are. If I were Ray Odierno, I think Iwould start keeping my opinions and expert analysis contrary to my boss’s beliefs to myself or start looking for a post-retirement job.

Iraq: A Glass Half-Empty or Half-Full

Posted in Diplomacy, Getting out of Iraq, Iraq and Troop Levels, Leaving Iraq with tags , , , on August 22, 2008 by whatafteriraq

 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.

Iraq, Afghanistan, and South Ossetia

Posted in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Troop Levels, Iraq War, South Ossetia and Georgia with tags , , , , , on August 10, 2008 by whatafteriraq

Over the weekend, war has begun in South Ossetia, a part of the Republic of Georgia that, along with neighboring Abkhazia, wishes to disassociate itself from Georgia and either achieve independence or union with Russia. The attempt by South Ossetia to break away from Georgia goes back to the breakup of the Soviet Union and has bubbled to the surface periodically since. As such, South Ossetian (or Abkhazian) separatism is not great international news.

The fact that Russia has intervened with armed force in ways reminiscent of its 1994 invasion of Chechnya is news. The Russians have had “peacekeepers” in South Ossetia (North Ossetia, along the border, is part of Russia) since 2006, and when fighting broke out between Georgian forces and the separatists earlier this month, the Russians jumped to the aid of those separatists. The Russians have invaded South Ossetia in force (partly from Abkhazia) and threaten to treat the area with the same loving care they showered on Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, 15 years ago (they leveled it). Whether they will go further into the rest of Georgia remains uncertain at this point.

So what’s the big deal? South Ossetia (the Georgians deny there is any such place, preferring to call it Samachablo and maintaining there is only one Ossetia, the part in Russia) is a small place in the mountains with a population of about 70,000 (according to the BBC) and with a mixed population of Georgians, Ossetians, and Russians. It has little geopolitical importance in and of itself.

What is going on is important for two reasons. The first concerns the United States, which has closer relations with Georgia than any of the other former Soviet republics and has heralded Georgia as the beacon of what the FSU (former Soviet Union) can become. That “special relationship,” however, is being put to the test, because the United States is essentially powerless to do anything about Russian aggression in Georgia (assuming we would under any circumstances). The reason, of course, is that the U.S. is so tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan (and potentially Iran) that it cannot threaten credibly to do anything about the Russian actions. Vladimir Putin and George Bush sit side by side and chat at the Beijing Olympics, but there is little Bush can whisper in Putin’s ear that might cause the Russians to change course. 

The other concern is Russia. The Russians have long chafed at their impotence in the face of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and now oil wealth and American diversion appear to give them the opening to flex their muscles over what they consider some of the more egregious instances of Soviet disintegration. At least part of the reason they can act is because they know the United States cannot counteract.

One can, of course, argue that even if the United States was not involved in the Middle East that we still wouldn’t have a lot to say about South Ossetia which, after all, is hardly worth a potential confrontation with Russia in Russia’s own backyard. While that is true, the current situation does, however, offer two lessons that come immediately to mind.

The first lesson is that of overextension. The United States has invested so much of its capability and energy in Iraq and Afghanistan that it really has little left to apply elsewhere in the world. We have known this for some time, but only in the abstract. South Ossetia puts that impotence in concrete terms. Second, the situation also points to the limits of commitment. There have been discussions about the expansion of NATO further east, and Georgia, the democratic protege, has been one of the possible candidates mentioned in a future expansion. If Georgia were a NATO member today, the U.S. and its NATO allies would be in a very delicate situation, to put it mildly, trying to figure out how to honor an alliance commitment to defend an ally while avoiding an all-out war with Russia (which does still have nuclear weapons). Before we get out the treaty pen again, we might want to think about South Ossetia.

What happens next? Will South Ossetia break away and join Russia over Georgian objections? Will the United States be in any position to do anything but sit and wring its hands? Will others want to have much to do with us while we’re still tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan? At the bottom line, are Iraq and Afghanistan important enough to leave the United States in the compromised situation in which we find ourselves today?

A Lumpy SOFA

Posted in Diplomacy, Getting out of Iraq, Iraq and Election, Iraq and Troop Levels, Leaving Iraq with tags , , , , , , on June 16, 2008 by whatafteriraq

Reports over the weekend that both the al-Maliki government and the Iranian government are less than enthused about the extension of the American military presence in Iraq via the proposed new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) are complicating the Iraq War future’s prospects. The SOFA is indeed turning lumpy.

What is going on here? The U.N. mandate under which the U.S. has operated its occupation in Iraq ends at the end of this year, as noted in an earlier posting. The only way the United States can legally remain in Iraq into 2009 is through a new UN mandate (which is not going to happen) or through Iraqi permission in the form of a SOFA wherein the two governments agree to an extension. The U.S. proposal calls for a long-term continued presence on a series of bases throughout Iraq. The pretensive reason is to protect the Iraqis (and Americans) from terrorists operating out of Iraq. The Iraqis, encouraged by the Iranians, increasingly view the SOFA as a ploy for the Americans to maintain effective control of Iraq more or less indefinitely. The Americans deny this; most Iraqis, who want the Americans to leave, do not believe us.

How is this all going to work out? Earlier in the year, the Bush administration apparently felt negotiation of the SOFA would be easy, assumed it would be signed and sealed well before the November election and would bind a new administration to honor commitments to stay. That hope not only no longer seems very likely, it now seems unlikely. Iraqi agreement to a new SOFA on American terms before November remains a possibility, but it is increasingly unlikely: the Iraqis and Iranians do not want it, and signing an agreement with a lame duck Bush administration that may be opposed by its successor is not a good deal for Iraqis who will have to deal with that new administration.

If the Bush deal is unlikely, then the next possibility is that nothing happens until the election, at which point a new arrangement is negotiated with the new administration’s blessing. If the incoming regime is headed by Obama, the new SOFA will likely be restrictive, calling for rapid removal of most U.S. forces and a small residual force to deal with AQI (Al Qaeda in Iraq) and to provide security for Americans remaining in the country. If the incoming adminstration is led by McCain, there will be prickly negotiations because McCain will essentially adopt the Bush position of a long, high manpower presence that could lead to the third outcome.

The third outcome is that the Iraqis simply refuse to sign any SOFA with the United States, a possibility hat seemed highly unlikely six months ago but not today. It is increasingly obvious that al-Maliki, or any other Iraqi leader who signs the SOFA the Bush administration wants, would be labeled a collaborator and besubject to retaliation after the Americans leave. If they reuse to allow the U.S. to stay, that would leave the United Statdes with two unpalatable options: obey international law, leave, and lose influence in Iraq; or brak the law, stay, and run the risk of international approbrium. The Bush administration would have no trouble with this dilemma, since they hold international law in disdain. But what about an Obama or a McCain administration? We will look at these possibilities in the future.   

Moral Hazard in Iraq?

Posted in Internal Violence in Iraq, Iraq and Election, Iraq and Troop Levels, Morality of War with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 23, 2008 by whatafteriraq

One domestic and one foreign policy issue have dominated public concern for the last week or so. The domestic issue is the mortgage crisis created by the issuance of so-called sub-prime loans—generally large loans to people financially unqualified for and unable to meet the long-term requirements of those loans—on housing. The policy question is what to do about the ensuing rush of home foreclosures that threatens lending institutions and homeowners about to be dispossessed. The foreign policy issue is the renewed outbreak of sectarian violence in Iraq, which threatens to upset the fragile tranquility contributed to the surge of American troops in the country.

Do these two events have anything in common? On the surface, they do not, but it may be possible to create a conceptual link between them. That link is the notion of moral hazard.

The concept of moral hazard is normally associated with economics, and refers, in a general way, to the problem of what to do when economic institutions act foolishly or imprudently in ways that threatens the economic well-being of themselves and others, such as investors. The problem is what to do when this occurs, and one common way to dissipate the effect of these bad economic decisions is in the form of some kind of bailout that reimburses those who have lost as a result of unwise actions. The rationale for subsidy is to avoid both grievous losses to innocent victims (investors who did not know what was being done, for instance) and the economy more generally. The moral hazard arises because the act of subsidizing those who have committed errors in effect rewards them for their bad behavior and sends a message that reckless behavior not only may not be punished in the future, but may be rewarded. Does one send that message, or let the economy and individuals suffer? That is the dilemma that faced the political system at the time of the saving and loan (S&L) crisis of the middle 1980s, at the time of the Asian financial crisis of 1998, and again today.

The same logic can be applied to reacting to the upsurge in inter-Iraqi violence this past week. The fighting has unglued one fundamental part of the reduced violence equation that has underpinned claims the surge is “succeeding” in reducing violence. The three argued pillars of reduced violence have been the introduction of additional American forces (the surge), the defection of Sunnis from support to opposition to Al Qaeda in Iraq (thereby allying them with the Americans—at least for the time being), and the ceasefire by the Mahdi Army of Sheikh Muktada al-Sadr. Al-Sadr’s forces have broken their part of the arrangement, engaging in battle with Iraqi armed forces (which are, to many observers, simply extensions of other Shiite factions in the country).

What is the United States to do? The first reaction has been support for the so-called “pause” in reductions of American forces as force numbers are returned to pre-surge levels. While the advertised idea is to see what happens after a modest troop reduction in terms of violence, the effect is also to provide something of a buffer against more inter- and intra-communal violence by keeping as many Americans as possible in a position to suppress that violence.

But does that approach not amount to another form of moral hazard? For Iraqis, the effect of more Americans staying is to suppress levels of violence by putting the screws to the warring factions. But is this not rewarding the Iraqis for their bad behavior? If it is, that is the essence of moral hazard.

Why would the U.S. gravitate toward this form of moral hazard? For the same reason that the U.S. government will end up pumping money into the housing market to protect imprudent borrowers and predatory lenders from their bad behavior: it is politically more acceptable to commit the ethereal, hypothetical sin of moral hazard than to kick people out of their homes or to take punitive actions that may deepen the recession. Similarly, the “pause” may reward bad Iraqi behavior, but it also avoids an imminent collapse of the surge-argued peace and allows proponents—whether they are outgoing presidents who do not want the legacy of having “lost” Iraq or aspiring presidential candidates wedded to the cause—to avoid embarrassing consequences.

Is moral hazard in war any more palatable than it is in peace?