In the Arena

Today in Iraq

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From the Washington Post’s account of yesterday’s confirmation hearings for David Petraeus and Ray Odierno:

Pressed by Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) on what the “endpoint” of U.S. involvement in Iraq should be, Odierno said the goal is a self-reliant, stable government that can protect the country and improve citizens’ lives.

“So how long do you think we should be there if those conditions are met?” Webb asked, in an apparent reference to McCain’s campaign statement that U.S. troops could remain as a stabilizing force in Iraq, similar in role and number to their presence in Japan and South Korea, for up to 100 years.

Odierno deflected the question. That would be a “policy decision,” he said several times.

Webb, a Marine veteran, persisted. “Do you believe that, if those conditions were met, there would be a need for United States military in Iraq?”

“I do not,” Odierno finally replied.

Petraeus and Odierno were all common sense yesterday, especially compared to the bleatings of the President and his chosen successor. And the fact is, there has been a fair amount of “good” news out of Iraq in recent days–a further weakening of Al Qaeda in Iraq in Mosul, the peaceful entry of the Iraqi Army into Basra and Sadr City. The reason why I put “good” in quotes is that some of this news may be too good to be true. For example, did Muqtada al-Sadr simply turn over to Sadr City to his enemies (the Badr Corps militia provide much of the spine of the Iraqi Army)…or is this part of Sadr’s strategy: to wait out the Americans and then have it out with his rival Shi’ites?

But let’s take the good news at face value. Basra and Sadr City are quiet. Mosul is quieting down. AQI is pretty much defeated…So, remind me again, what are we still doing there? Answer: we are babysitting a potential civil war. If we leave, the Iraqis go at each other hammer and tongs. That would be tragic for the long-suffering Iraqi people, but what does it mean to us? Our priorities are elsewhere:

1. putting more effort into defeating the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as Petraeus suggested yesterday.

2. relieving the terrible strain on the Army, our troops and their families.

3. stopping the unbelievable drain on the U.S. treasury

Yes, there is a fourth priority: making sure that whatever civil unrest attends our departure doesn’t spill over and create a regional crisis. But our best hope there is diplomacy. Specifically, to convene a meeting of Iraq’s neighbors, as we did with Afghanistan’s neighbors (including Iran) and get them talking–especially Iran and Turkey in the north, and Iran and Saudi Arabia in the south. That is precisely the sort of result that direct negotiations with Iran might yield. It is precisely what George Bush hasn’t done and John McCain has said he will not do.

Add: There’s also this. It seems Grand Ayatullah Sistani, the most powerful religious figure in Iraq, is getting tired of having us around. It reminds me of what Ambassador Ryan Crocker said during a meeting with Time editors when asked about the long-term bases question, “I don’t think the Iraqis want that.”