Tuesday, July 17, 2007

My Vote

The war in Iraq is a very polarizing topic. It’s hard to stake out a nuanced position. For some people, if you concede any merit at all to the idea of the invasion, you are a hopeless warmonger, and for others, if you have any doubts at all about the way the war is being conducted, you are a spineless defeatist.
So sue me. Here’s what I think:
Every Iraqi I knew in 2003 supported the invasion. They sure as hell have their regrets now, however. This means something.
The fact that you can make a list of specific errors we’ve made in Iraq (failure to keep order, disbanding the army, etc.) means, logically, that it is possible to envisage a scenario in which we did not make those mistakes. Would things be better if we hadn’t? Almost certainly. Crucially though, what was the likelihood of our not making those mistakes? If you’re going to say, “Not great, with this bunch of cowboys in power,” I’m going to be hard pressed to come up with a response.
To me, all this means that while the invasion in and of itself wasn’t necessarily a mistake, it was a high-risk play. And you don’t bet immense stakes on a high-risk play unless you really have to. In March 2003 a friend asked me if I thought the invasion was a good idea. I said, “Ask me in five years.” So I’ve still got until next March, but I have to say, it’s starting to look as if the invasion of Iraq was a grave strategic mistake.
However, we’re there. What are our options now? Somebody said that in Vietnam we should have declared victory and withdrawn early on. That has a certain amount of appeal in Iraq. We did win— we toppled Saddam. We can bring the troops home and have a parade. Or can we? I don’t think anybody really knows what will happen if we just withdraw. Those who can’t imagine that things could get worse than they are now are merely deficient in imagination. On the other hand, a U.S. withdrawal might concentrate minds wonderfully. And at this point, American troops may be simply drawing fire that wouldn’t exist if we weren’t there. Nobody knows. The situation is complex and rapidly evolving.
I have some sympathy with those that say the surge should be given a chance to succeed, but what happens if it doesn’t? How many more surges do we commit to? How long are we willing to stay in Iraq? Benchmarks are a great idea until the Iraqis fail to meet them. Then what?
I don’t think our commitment to Iraq can be open-ended. We can’t afford it. Vietnam showed us what a protracted unpopular war does to the military and to society at large. I think we need to set our own benchmarks and leave when we meet them. Number of Iraqi troops trained, for example. Get the battalions up and running, wish them luck and start pulling out. We will have botched the occupation but made an effort to repair the damage. We cannot assume responsibility ad infinitem for Iraqi civil strife. We can declare a tie at the end of overtime and withdraw.
The situation in the Middle East will continue to be volatile whether or not we have troops in Iraq. They can have a war with or without us. I vote for without.

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