In the Arena

Today in Iraq

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The complicated reality of the war in Iraq is that everyone has been wrong about it at some point. There is a hierarchy of wrongitude, with those who favored the war in the first place, and continue to think it was a good idea, and want to establish permanent bases there–the Krauthammer school–being wrongest.

My friend Ken Pollack has an interesting place in that hierarchy. He was wrong about the war, wrote a book in favor of it, but he agonized as war approached that Bush was entering it fecklessly, without proper planning, without a thoughtful diplomatic component. Ever since, he has tried to figure out how to make the best of a bad situation. I agreed with Ken when he pushed for counterinsurgency tactics during the historically dismal Rumsfeld era (as did John McCain). But I disagreed with Ken, and McCain, about the possible success of the surge: I thought it was coming too late. Reinforced by some excellent luck–the Anbar Awakening–and an excellent commander and the general Iraqi exhaustion with violence, Ken turned out to be right about that one. His work over the past year, with his frequent writing partner Michael O’Hanlon, has been prescient: prudently optimistic, never triumphalist, and never slipping over into McCain’s neocolonial desire for 100-year bases.

Today, Pollack and O’Hanlon–writing with Steve Biddle–are back on the op-ed page of the New York Times with a plea for not-so-fast troop reductions in Iraq–and, again, I disagree, although in this case, the disagreement is more a matter of degree than of basic principles. No doubt, there will be those who’ll start bleating that Pollack,O’Hanlon and Biddle have announced that they want to stay in Iraq forever. But that’s not true: they’ve said they cut the U.S. force in half in two years, and continue reductions from there:

[T]he Balkan experience suggests a serious prospect for major withdrawals — perhaps on the order of half the American troop presence — in the next two to three years. Thereafter, if current trends continue, reductions might proceed roughly on the Balkan schedule — with barely 10 percent of the original force expected to be remaining a decade after the end of major hostilities.

My objection is that Pollack et al. wouldn’t really ramp up the withdrawals until after the 2009 Iraqi national elections. I think we should resume our troop withdrawals in September and countinue them at a steady pace until a residual force of less than 30,000 special operators, military trainers and embassy guards is left at the end of 2011–unless, of course, Maliki actually does want us out quicker (although I expect that both Maliki and Obama have goosed their timetables slightly for political reasons). I think this is important for three reasons: we need more troops in Afghanistan (two combat bridgades–10,000 or so), but more important: our military is exhausted and needs to come home and the $10 billion per month cost of the war is bleeding us.

In the end, we’re back to optimism versus pessimism: Ken is optimistic that we can guarantee Iraqi democracy if we stay through 2009. I remain entirely skeptical that democracy is possible in a country without a stable middle class and a reliable rule of law. (By the way, Ken very persuasively lays out the reasons why Arab culture has been so inhospitable to democracy, and how we might creatively respond to that in his new book, A Path Out of the Desert.)
Far more likely in Iraq, if current trends hold, is the probability of a fig-leaf democracy, as in Russia–with Maliki, or an Shi’ite general, as strongman. Ken believes that’s a recipe for chaos, and he may be right. I think the AfPak situation is far more crucial to our national security…and the rehabilitation of our armed forces even moreso. Certainly, the money and lives wasted in this benighted enterprise need to be staunched as quickly as possible.. I’d also guess that the powers that be–Gates and Petraeus–are closer to my position, which is probably why Pollack et al wrote the op-ed today. As I said, Pollack and O’Hanlon have had a good run over the past year and their views have to be taken seriously, but good runs tend not to last very long in Iraq and this time I think they’re pressing their luck.