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"America has two great dominant strands of political thought - conservatism, which, at its very best, draws lines that should not be crossed; and progressivism, which, at its very best, breaks down barriers that should never have been erected." -- Bill Clinton, Dedication of the Clinton Presidential Library, November 2004

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Wednesday, October 18, 2006


Withdrawal vs stay the course: false choices

posted by Aziz P. at Wednesday, October 18, 2006 permalink View blog reactions
Increasingly, it seems that outright withdrawal from Iraq is just as flawed a panacea as "stay the course" in terms of winning the war on Terror, which is the real ball our foreign plicy with respectt to Iraq should be keeping an eye on. To that effect I just added a pile of links to the @NB feed on the right sidebar that have basically summarized the current state of afffairs: civil war between Shi'a and Sunnis, Internecine power struggles between Shi'a, and unification of Sunni insurgents, tribal leaders, and even ex-Ba'ath against Al-Qaeda. Throw in the likelihood that the Baker Hamilton commission will probably recommend a "soft" partition of Iraq (which will suit the Shi'a and the Kurds just fine), and it seems that our options of where to go from here need to be subtle indeed. In fact just such a subtle proposal was just floated by Greg D in which he proposes an Iraqi Dayton Accords; the nuance of his proposal is such that it is almost guaranteed to be misrepresented, especially by the strident "stay the course" crowd, but also by the vocal left which sees withdrawal from Iraq as the sine qua non of a Democratic majority's agenda after the election in a few weeks.

However, it is unquestionable that having a Democratic majority in the House will put pressure on the Administration to be more receptive to nuance. One could argue that the creation of the Iraq Study Group and Baker's involvement was really a recognition of the inevitable. The biggest obstacle to peace really are the present crop of stay-the-course partisans who dominate all discourse about Iraq. The concern that the Democrats might try to force an end to the war is largely overblown given that even with a majority, they are still a fairly diverse caucus, and there is hardly concensus on what to do in Iraq next. Of course, it suits die-hard GOP stalwarts to deny this, such as at RedState.

In a related vein, I had a discussion with a very well-known conservative blogger (who has not yet given me explicit permission to share his identity) that really threw the impending potential shift in our Iraq strategy (should the Democrats take control) into stark relief. The transcript follows:


me: let me ask you something
him: sure
12:27 PM me: do you believe that a Democrat majority will be genuinely narrow in its ideologic spread?
him: On some key things, yes.
The war above all.
12:28 PM me: theres considerable spread on the war
look at Steny Hoyer, for example
him: Not where Iraq is concerned.
There's merely debate on how fast to leave.
me: and he will be number 2 in line after Pelosi
No, Hoyer is a "stay" Dem.
him: Sorry, but I disagree. The Democrats will end the war in Iraq, Hoyer or no.
12:29 PM Hoyer is not a moral leader by any stretch, and he does not speak for the party on that count.
me: ive been a pretty strong supporter of staying in Iraq myself, but I confess that my attitudes are slowly shifting.
theres a key dynamic that most analysts tend to miss
him: Which is what?
12:30 PM me: the key is this. What is more important to our long term goals:
1. denying Al Qaeda victory
2. denying the Iraqi insurgenyc victory
12:31 PM him: You cannot lose to one without directly buttressing the cause of the other.
I believe your formulation contains a fallacy: namely, that there is a meaningful separation between the two, vis a vis the broader jihadist movement that we are fighting.
me: no, i am going stricltly by Abizaid's assessment, Joshua.
12:32 PM and he makes that separation crystal clear, as do those who are familiar with eth jihadi message forums
like Cordesman, Darling, etc
i do my due diligence.
him: Abizaid is wrong in this.
We are fighting more than al Qaeda in this war.
12:33 PM me: John Abizaid knows that, I think.
him: Sorry, but if he believes that there is a meaningful separability between jihadist A and jihadist B, he is wrong.
me: how are you defining jihadist?
12:34 PM him: Muslim + Ready to Kill for the Faith = Jihadist. A large group.
me: you dont draw any dictintion between a foreign ALQ fighter and a local sunni iraqi?
12:35 PM him: Sure, I'm aware that they have different specific motivations. But there's no reason to not do our utmost to kill them both.
If one wins, the other draws moral and material support from that victory.
me: actually, not true.
him: We cannot capitulate to either. We should learn from Lebanon, Somalia, and Lebanon.
me: if anything their goals are completely diametrically opposed.
12:36 PM him: Not where we infidels are concerned, they're not.
me: I think the Islam issue is cloudinng the analysis here. Yes they are functionally muslim groups btut in fact a strategy for victory shoudl seek to divide them further, not lump them together.
12:37 PM for the sunni iraqi its about occupation
for the ALQ jihadi its about islam.
him: Which is why the Sunni Iraqi seeks to kill local Shi'a and Christians, yes?
12:38 PM Sorry, but this has all the meaningful qualities of trying to separate German and Italian facists. You cannot coexist with either.
me: the sectarian conflicts are a separate layer.
did I just know propose coexistence?
i dont think i advocated that.
12:39 PM i am discussing way to put these two foes at each others' throats. Not choose one to cuddle up with at night.
Im not your average leftist. By now I think I deserve that benefit of teh doubt.
him: Well, given that neither will wipe out the other -- and we want that fate for both of them -- I don't see the point on more than a tactical level.
me: then read this:
him: I know. But you are an incorrigible optimist.
12:40 PM me: give me your opinion on that link.
him: Can I read it later in the day? Work calls.
me: ok

I should note that I consider my correspondent above a friend and an honorable man. But it is clear that his responses above are reflective of a broader, fundamental unwillingness to look at the actual data in favor of a domestic-politics tinged lens. The violence in Iraq? all about Islam persecuting Christians. The Democratic agenda? Withdrawal, impeachment, utter discipline for humiliating America's sake alone.

Let me be absolutely clear. If the Republicans were offering a genuine plan for strategic victory, one that took the differing motives of the various Iraqi factions and neighbors of Iraq into account (most especially Syria and Iran, with whom diplomatic negitiations towards common interests are essential to ANY victory), then I would vote GOP in five weeks. It IS Iraq, stupid - and the GOP is stuck in a loop. At this point, a Democratic majority is the only way to break the policy logjam and allow some actual reality-based strategy to proceed.


I don't quite understand what "stay the course" means to the critics. To me it's pretty clear what it means:

Continue to back the legitimately elected Constitutional government, and continue to train Iraqi security forces to take over their own security duties, moving ourselves steadily to more and more of a support role.

I don't think there's any "endless loop" here, especially for an elected government that's only formed in the last 6 months.

I would agree that there is room for re-evaluation of some things here, but I'm waiting for specific proposals. Change just for the sake of change in Washington isn't going to move me to trust Democrats not to try to vote to abandon Iraq--which is my biggest concern.


As I see the lay of the land there's a bipartisan consensus emerging that supports withdrawal from Iraq. The reasons are different but that's the way it looks to me.

Russ Feinstein and John Edwards have both come out in favor of immediate withdrawal (immediate as in by the end of 2006). That is, essentially, a rout.

Other Dems have floated surreal proposals for various degrees of withdrawal and various distances. I think all are equally unrealistic: if there's withdrawal it will be complete, not to return, and funding will end. I believe that this will be accompanied by an American loss of appetite for nation-building, generally, possibly for a generation or more.

The proposals for division of Iraq puzzle me. Why will that result in less violence? If accompanied by the withdrawal of U. S. forces, it sounds suspiciously to me like setting the stage for a region-wide upheaval.


If the Republicans were offering a genuine plan for strategic victory... then I would vote GOP in five weeks.

Then I guess you will pulling the Republican lever in November.

Look, stepping outside ideology for amoment, since they're out of power and can't take action on their own, the Dems are the victim of having to be against whatever Bush does: even if they know he's right about something, they have to take an opposite position to make him seem wrong in order to get votes. Thus we get all kinds of criticism of the progress in Iraq but no real alternatives, because ultimately most of them know Bush is taking the most reasonable course. We saw the mirror image of this dynamic in Kosovo, with the difference that the GOP has a much smaller, less vocal antiwar/anti-American wing.

The problem in Iraq is that many Sunnis are not reconciled to being forced out of power, and so they are murdering Shia and Kurds and Americans. Some Shia are tired of just taking it and have started tit-for-tat reprisals (and in the end, this may be the only thing that stops Sunni violence). As sad as all this is, we really have very little control over whether Iraqis decide to kill each other, or us. Peace requires two willing parties; war needs only one.

Dems or Repubs, it really makes no difference in the paradigm of the war. We're going to train up an Iraqi army loyal to the elected government, give them support, and hope the people of Iraq eventually decide murder isn't the answer.


Somewhat reluctantly, I find myself picking up the hippy liberal banner once again. I say somewhat reluctantly because, by any reasonable calculus, I am by temperament, political orientation, and any other metric you care to use, emphatically middle of the road.

Be that as it may, here goes. This is what the facts on the table look like to me.

"War on terror" is a term that has no substantive meaning. None, nada, zip, zilch, niente. Zero. Its use should be abandoned immediately and forever. It means nothing.

There are militant Islamist groups who seek to harm, directly, Americans. These people should be found and captured or killed. There actually are not that many of them. Perhaps they number in the tens of thousands.

There are militant Islamist groups whose ambitions do not align with those of the US, and who seek goals that are not necessarily in our best interest. We need to find a constructive way to engage and deal with them, just like we do with every other group and nation in the world whose interests and ambitions do not align with ours. Nothing along those lines has, to my knowledge, been attempted.

In March of 2003, Iraq posed no threat, whatsoever, to the US, and this was either known, or could readily be known, by the principals who advocated for the war. Iraq had nothing whatsoever to do with the attacks on this nation on 9/11, or with any of the previous attacks sponsored by Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, or other groups. The reasons for invading were and are, to me and to many many other people, unclear, now and then. That lack of clarity has only been exacerbated by the astounding blizzard of rationales that were offered once the nominal reasons for invading -- WMDs -- proved to be false.

At the time we invaded Iraq, military professionals advised going in with a larger force than we did. Our failure to heed that advice, along with all of the other famous blunders, all of which were well known when undertaken and all of whose outcomes were predicted, have led us to the position we are now in.

It may, in fact, be simply and absolutely too late to achieve anything resembling a good outcome in Iraq. By a "good outcome", I mean one that leaves the Iraqi people in a position better than the one they were in before we invaded. Seeing as that position included being subject to Saddam Hussein, that is quite a statement to make. Nevertheless, I stand by it.

If it is actually not too late to do so, achieving a good outcome will require putting, by my guess, something like 400,000 - 500,000 pairs of boots on the ground. Nothing good will happen until a basic level of security is achieved, and from what I can tell we need about three times the number of folks we have there now to make that happen.

I have, personally, and in spite of my absolute disagreement with the decision to invade, been a well-documented advocate of doing exactly that, because that is what will take to make a good outcome happen. Not because it will make the US more secure, because as far as I can tell it will not make us one iota more, or less, secure. I advocate it because we've made the lives of Iraqis a living hell, and we owe it to them to make that better.

I don't hear any conservatives, anywhere, calling for anything like that level of commitment. So, I don't take conservatives seriously when they criticize folks who call for a withdrawal.

Iraq is FUBAR. It's a travesty. It's a blunder of generational, world-historical proportions. The prosecution of the war has been an uninterrupted parade of clownish incompetence, beginning with it's inception.

Your anonymous interlocutor is correct when he says that a Democratic majority will probably mean we will leave Iraq. In fact, a Republican majority will probably mean we will leave Iraq. If not this year, next year. If not next year, than the year after that.

That is because, by far, most Americans are well and truly sick of it. Sick of the death. Sick of the lies and misinformation. Sick of the baldly false platitudes that issue, daily, from the mouths of the President and those around him. Sick and tired of the whole thing.

The blame for that lies with those who conceived this war, who advocated for it, and who prosecuted it so badly and with such irresponsibility and disregard.

That's the reality as I see it. I'm not sure where that puts me in the spectrum from "blue" to "red". I am quite confident it puts me solidly in the mainstream of American popular opinion at this point in time.



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About Nation-Building

Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.