Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Withdraw or withstand?

Over at Centerfield a commenter has sparked a lively discussion by breaking down the Iraq withdrawal question into some bite-sized chunks. Here are my own comments (in italics) on this way of analyzing the situation.


1. What would the effect of withdrawal be on Iraq in terms of:

a)the level of violence in Iraq

The immediate effect of withdrawal would most likely be destabilizing to provinces where the US presence acts to reassure minorities that they are protected. Other areas where jihadists cause the majority of violence would lose their main hard targets and initially disperse, but it is clear that the presence or absence of US troops does not definitively prevent civilian-targetted bombings (witness Jordan's recent tragedy). In sum, the pattern of violence would shift, but it's not clear the total level of violence would change markedly. What matters more long term than the level of violence, though, is the political implications of what violence occurs.

b)political developments in Iraq -- stability, healing or exacerbating the ethnic divide, more secular or theistic leadership, unified state (if that indeed should be our goal), human rights, emergence of liberal-democratic institutions

Withdrawal of US forces would provide a great test of the institutions we have helped the Iraqis set up. The underlying question is legitimacy--at the moment the authority of the central government is no longer bolstered by US boots, has it built up enough of its own legitimacy to stand or not? Legitimacy in this context is closely tied to familiarity and trust. It takes time for ethnic Kurds to deal with Shia or Sunni leaders over issue after issue, gradually experiencing fair treatment and adherence to agreed-upon rules, until trust accumulates. Only people intimately involved with both parties will have a sense of the extent that this has happened. The greatest value, then, in US participation in these talks is not to affect the actual outcome of the constitution or specific policies, but to attain the intelligence of the parties' level of trust, which is so key to determining if the central governement can withstand the shock of US withdrawal.

c)infrastructure reconstruction

US troops' presence affect on reconstruction is largely tied to provision of security rather than direct reconstruction efforts which is largely carried out by private contractors. Worsening security around Baghdad, Basra or other trade hubs would be expected to cause a cascade of stagnation as supplies for reconstruction dry up to even the most peaceful provinces.

d)the influence and involvement of border states -- esp. Turkey, Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia

Each state has interests tied to the US presence in Iraq that are more complicated than I have the space or expertise here to describe. In brief though, I think it's safe to say that each of these states would be emboldened to take interventionalist policies toward a newly de-Americanized Iraq.

e)what effect would the Murtha proposal of stationing troops in the area "just over the horizon" following withdrawal have on this?

The Murtha Reserve's effect would be proportional to its size, rapid deployability, and the credibility of the resolve to use it. Those are all matters for debate.

2. How will staying in Iraq (postponing our withdrawal to some future date or benchmark) increase the likelihood of having positive outcomes to a,b,c and d above and are there any different steps we should we now take in Iraq to increase that likelihood?

Postponing withdrawal indefinitely will have little direct impact on the short term level of violence. But commitment to long-term occupation will strengthen resistance recruiting efforts and make it difficult for pro-democracy factions to maintain nationalist credentials. But more important than the pro- or anti- democracy divide is the ethnic divide, and it is harder to predict its effect on ethnic leaders.

3. What effect would withdrawal have on political developments in the border states? What would the effect of Murtha's proposal be? Where might troops be stationed "just over the horizon"?

Withdrawal may embolden our enemies short-term, but it would be an evanescent effect. Murtha's proposal's effect will be determined by the amount of sovereignty that the host country is perceived as retaining in its relationship with the US. That is, the less like a colonized puppet its government looks, the better its chance of evading extremist retaliation. Though several countries like Kuwait and Turkey might be attractive, it could be wiser to station a brigade of Marines in the Gulf as a very rapid reaction force, with reinforcing Army units farther away in Diego Garcia or somewhere less visible in the Arab political world.

4. What effect will continued long-term deployment of US troops with the present level of attrition have on the US military in terms of flexibility, readiness, resources, recruitment and morale? What will be the effect of withdrawal on these?

The balance between hits to morale from attrition due to the current deployment situation and from withdrawal is difficult to estimate, especially for a non-military person.

5. What effect does continued deployment or withdrawal have on the ability of the United States to achieve broader foreign policy objectives and project its power abroad?

This is the key question. There's no question that the Iraq deployment is a major drain on the treasury, and that itself is a significant obstacle to accomplishing other foreign policy priorities. Despite arguements from war opponents, though, I think the foreign policy political capital could be salvaged if the US adopted a more pragmatic approach--describing the botched intelligence candidly and casting the current situation as a problem to fix rather than as a victory to achieve. Such a reframing will make the administration's tenor more in line with the view of the rest of the world, without substantively changing our goals and methods.

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