Last week I discussed the responsibilities that the United States has to the Iraqi people, to the U.S. servicemen and women in Iraq, and to U.S. national security interests. It would be easier to arrive at the optimal policy if a single course of action were consistent with meeting our obligations in all three of these areas; unfortunately, U.S. obligations in one sphere may weaken our ability to meet our obligations in another.
For example, if it is unfair to ask the U.S. military to police an Iraqi civil war, the withdrawal of American troops may make it harder to meet our obligations to the Iraqi people. Meeting our obligations to the Iraqis may also weaken our national security interests if this leads to a larger regional war or to a new failed state that acts as a terrorist training ground. The point is that there are no easy answers and it is quite possible that the American public and its political leaders will have to prioritize and choose which obligations are the most pressing.
Those in the realist school put U.S. national security interests above all else, while interestingly, many neoconservatives continue to stress our obligation to the Iraqi people and the U.S. servicemen and women who, in their view, are making progress.
While I share the view held by most on the Left, that this war was waged unnecessarily, I do not share the view that simply getting the troops out is by definition the right strategy. It all comes back to our obligations and how best to meet them in what is now essentially a lose-lose situation, or as Barack Obama has characterized it, choosing between bad and worse options.
With respect to our obligations to the Iraqi people it seems reasonable that, at minimum, we should be taking the actions laid out in this piece on Democracy Arsenal, which essentially boils down to increasing humanitarian aid and helping the millions of Iraqi refugees. Much of this can be done whether we stay in Iraq or not. I would add that we must also protect the Iraqis who have bravely worked side by side with us.
On the military front, it is becoming increasingly clear that our presence in Iraq is not in any way leading to the necessary Iraqi political reconciliation that is required for peace. We are likely helping to arm and train many of the death squads that are not only killing innocent Iraqis but our own troops. As Michael O’Hanlon (coauthor of a recent New York Times Op-Ed in which he called for a continued military presence) amazingly admitted on a recent NPR show, he has no theory whatsoever as to why the “surge” should produce a change in the political climate in Iraq; he said that it is only a hope. We should not ask our servicemen and women to remain in the line of fire for an elusive hope.
Therefore we must begin a gradual drawdown of U.S. forces, maintaining sufficient numbers to protect those Iraqis who have risked their lives working with us as well as to assist with humanitarian efforts. This view puts me squarely with those who argue for a residual force. As Senator Biden has said repeatedly, there is simply no way that we can withdraw all of our troops anytime soon given the thousands of Americans (e.g., private contractors, persons working for non-governmental organizations and embassy workers) who will remain in Iraq whether or not we have a full-scale military presence there.
With respect to our national security interests, the U.S. residual force must remain in Iraq long enough to root out the worst elements, mainly the foreign jihadists who are wreaking the most havoc and whose larger scheme is to destabilize the entire region and launch attacks on American interests around the world. This rooting out can be done with a much smaller force of elite units. For those who say that our drawdown will lead to the perception that America is weak, my reply is that U.S. foreign policy should never be held hostage to the views of fundamentalists maniacs. Their perceptions are irrelevant; it is our actions that are paramount.
With the majority of our troops out of Iraq, we will be able to rebuild our military and rededicate U.S. forces to Afghanistan, where the Taliban and Al Qeada are resurgent. We will finally be able to finish the job which should have been finished years ago.
To quote Barack Obama, the key to regaining the upper hand is to focus on the “right battlefields”. By showing our enemies that we have regrouped not in retreat, but in order to more effectively target them and their strongholds, we will dash any misperceptions of American weakness.
Next week: how all of this may play out politically.