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Thursday, August 23, 2007


the blood cost of withdrawal

posted by Aziz P. at Thursday, August 23, 2007 permalink View blog reactions
I think it's probably necessary to preface this post with the following disclosures: I was against invading Iraq; I am a pragmatic liberal interventionist as regards to foreign policy; I think that the argument for total and complete withdrawal from Iraq is a. genuinely harmful to America's self-interest (in a global sense) and b. not on the table, regardless of who wins the election in 2008. The very term "withdrawal" is in fact meaningless, but there's some irony in the fact that the rabid Article III/Section 3-quoting right-wingers and the reflexively anti-military ultra-leftists define the term in precisely the same way. Rather analogous to how Islamophobes and Al Qaeda interpret the Qur'an the same way, in fact, but that's truly tangential.

Small-w withdrawal can take many forms, and there are costs and benefits accordingly. For the sake of discussion, let's define Withdrawal with a capital W as the total Vietnam-esque withdrawal of every last soldier from Iraq. Jim Henley argues forcefully that the cost-benefit analysis of Withdrawal is neutral:

It is possible that if we leave, hundreds of thousands will die and millions be displaced. That has already happened under our government’s tender and expert care. There is no short-term prospect that it will stop happening. But I guess if you die while the US is around, you have the comfort of knowing we were trying.

Let's be honest with ourselves and admit that if we leave, it is not just possible but in fact rather likely that (X1) hundreds of thousands will die and (Y1) millions will be displaced. Let's also be honest that if we stay, (X2) hundreds of thousands will die and (Y2) millions will be displaced. Can Aziz Poonawalla, or Jim Henley, or George Bush, or Bill Richardson, or anyone else make a coherent empirical argument about whether X1 < X2 or X1 > X2? The answer is no; with one caveat Assertion (with a capital A) - the people in Iraq who are those most invested in the idea of Iraq as a stable, prosperous, free nation, ie the people who it is in our best interest as a nation to help stay alive and be in charge of Iraq someday, will be brutally massacred if we Withdraw-with-a-capital-W. The policy and strategy implications of the Assertion can be debated, but the factual nature of the Assertion cannot.

If liberals are to articulate a coherent foreign policy vision that can compete for mindshare with the neoconservative PNAC agenda, it needs to be founded on liberal principles. I define liberalism in a classical sense; the universal right of individual liberty. The fundamental premise of pragmatic liberal interventionism (PLI) is that America's vast power (including but not limited to military power) is best applied in service of global promotion of that universal idea.

It seems to me that abandoning Iraq via outright Withdrawal would betray that principle. We certainly cannot remain in Iraq as we are, but neither should we rush to embrace the polar opposite of "staying the course", because there is a real blood cost. Blowback, if you will.

If we want to argue policy that accepts the blood cost of withdrawal on its merits, with full realization and acknowledgment therein, then by all means let us do so. But let's not pretend that our presence in Iraq is utterly irrelevant.

Highly related reading: Anthony Cordesman's report from Iraq, entitled "The tenuous case for strategic patience in Iraq" (PDF). The synopsis:

The attached trip report does, however, show there is still a tenuous case for strategic patience in Iraq, and for timing reductions in US forces and aid to Iraqi progress rather than arbitrary dates and uncertain benchmarks. It recognizes that strategic patience is a high risk strategy, but it also describes positive trends in the fighting, and hints of future political progress.

These trends are uncertain, and must be considered in the context of a long list of serious political, military, and economic risks that are described in detail. The report also discusses major delays and problems in the original surge strategy. The new US approach to counterinsurgency warfare is making a difference, but it still seems likely from a visit to the scene that the original strategy President Bush announced in January would have failed if it had not been for the Sunni tribal awakening.

Luck, however, is not something that can be ignored, and there is a window of opportunity that could significantly improve the chances of US success in Iraq if the Iraqi government acts upon it. The US also now has a country team in Iraq that is far more capable than in the past, and which may be able to develop and implement the kind of cohesive plans for US action in Iraq that have been weak or lacking to date. If that team can come forward with solid plans for an integrated approach to a sustained US effort to deal with Iraq’s plans and risks, there would be a far stronger and more bipartisan case for strategic patience.

Cordesman is a full-fledged member of the VSP and as his publications list demonstrates, not a serial revisionist like O'Hanlon or Pollack. The full report is worth reading in full.

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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.