What should we do about Iraq? (Obviously a contentious topic.) It seems clear at this late date that the reasons that the Bush administration gave for the invasion were consistently either lies or hopes which have failed. But that is the past. What should we do now?

What are the advantages of keeping the army in Iraq?

  • There is the chance that if we can keep the peace in Iraq, it will become a relatively normal country. That would be good. Unfortunately, I think that at this point we can rule out the premise: we are not able to keep the peace. Our military is simply not large enough to provide a police force for a country the size of Iraq. The Iraqi police and military are showing no signs of being able to do the job themselves. We need to set aside wishful thinking and acknowledge that this is not going to happen. For that matter, we should also acknowledge that Iraq was created by fiat in the 1920s, and has never in fact been a normal country. It has no ties of culture, religion or ethnicity sufficient to hold it together.
  • We owe it to the people of Iraq to keep the peace: in other words, we broke the country, so now we own it. I think this argument is strong, but, again, it founders on the fact that we can not do it. We owe the people of Iraq no apologies for removing Saddam Hussein, but we owe them big-time for messing up the reconstruction. Unfortunately, this is a debt which we can not pay. It is folly to keep trying the impossible.
  • Iraq has considerable oil reserves, and oil has strategic importance for the U.S. This is absolutely true, although unfortunately the oil is currently unrecoverable due to regular sabotage. However, we do not need to have military forces in Iraq in order to extract the oil. We need to first have the country normalize, and we need to then offer the best terms for the oil. This will not be easy, as China is willing to make a considerable investment in order to get oil, as they are showing in Chad and other places. However, I think that we can compete fairly in the marketplace.
  • Having military bases in Iraq would be useful to counteract potential enemies like Al Qaeda, Iran, and Syria. This is likely true, although it is necessary to weigh the benefit of having the bases against the provocation they provide. The most plausible solution will be to keep military bases in the Kurdish region of Iraq, where they will be both more welcome and less provocative.
  • Leaving Iraq would be admitting defeat, and that would be a victory for our enemies. This argument was used during the Vietnam War, and it proved completely false. Admittedly, leaving Iraq will mean that few people will welcome our involvement in their country in the future, but that’s OK: the Iraqis didn’t want us there either (at least, they didn’t want us to stay–at the start of the occupation, many Iraqis said “thanks for removing Saddam Hussein; now please leave”). Taking our military forces out of Iraq will not make us weaker; it will make us stronger.

I can’t think of any other advantages. The disadvantages–the loss of life, the enormous expense, the distraction from other parts of the world–are clear. We need to leave Iraq.

How should we do it? Given the situation, the answer has to be as fast as possible, consistent with keeping Americans and Iraqis safe and doing as best as we can for Iraq in the process. I am scarcely a military strategist, but my recommendations would be along the lines of preparing bases in Kurdistan, slowly consolidating our forces in the rest of Iraq, and then announcing our withdrawal at a future date. On that date, the withdrawal must be done in sufficient force to protect the soldiers. We should provide asylum to members of the Iraqi government who request it, along with their families.

When announcing the date of the withdrawal, we should encourage the other Arab countries to help stabilize Iraq. They are unlikely to actually do anything, but we have to try.

Then we have to see what happens. The immediate result will most likely be an escalation of the process of civil war and ethnic cleansing. This is already happening despite our best efforts, and is likely to intensify. General regional instability will also increase, and we must be ready to intervene militarily to prevent chaos from spilling across country borders. Kurdistan will presumably declare its independence from Iraq, and we should support that, while keeping close watch on the borders between Kurdistan and Turkey.

This is, of course, an admission of defeat. I think an honest appraisal is that we have already lost. The question now is how to lose as gracefully as possible.

Sadly, none of this will happen during the current administration. Things won’t look any better when we have a new president, 17 long months from now. I just hope they don’t look significantly worse.


  1. fche said,

    August 18, 2007 @ 4:59 pm

    This view is dependent on a couple of empirical propositions:

    * we are not able to keep the peace
    * The Iraqi police and military are showing no signs of being able to do the job themselves
    * This argument was used during the Vietnam War, and it proved completely false.
    * the Iraqis didn’t want us there either / many Iraqis said “thanks for removing Saddam Hussein; now please leave”

    and there is at least some evidence to the contrary for each of them. Obviously
    there is not enough to convince anti-war folks, but there does exist enough better
    news to invalidate use of absolutes like “no progress at all”. You’d need to look
    for such in Michael Yon’s dispatches, for example.

    Another thing – Al Qaeda is not a “potential” enemy. It has been at war with the
    US for over a decade. They already have set up shop in Iraq, and have had to
    be beaten back out from several areas. Leaving would give them a safe haven
    from which to plan future attacks up on the US. The potential harm from
    this is of course arguable, but it’s hard to neglect.

  2. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    August 20, 2007 @ 9:52 pm

    Throughout the course of the war the administration has been saying that better news is around the corner. I simply no longer believe them. I read the Iraq news pretty carefully, and in my view the occasional positive progress is significantly outweighed by the negative. Among the most troubling happenings is that, while Iraq used to have a solid professional middle class even under Hussein, most of those people are leaving the country or being killed. The more the country loses its educated people, the harder it will be for it to recover.

    In your comments about Al Qaeda, I think you may be confusing the organization that attacked the U.S.–the original Al Qaeda–with the organization in Iraq–Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. The two organizations are known to have some contact, but they are different organizations, with different people and different objectives.

    Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia appears to be something of an ultra-violent fringe organization, with little native Iraqi support. U.S. forces have even had some success cooperating with Sunni forces against AQiM, although the Sunni people seem to otherwise barely talk to the U.S. The most well known AQiM leader, now dead, was actually Jordanian, not Iraqi.

    AQiM is virulently anti-Shia, and as such is restricted to the Sunni majority areas of Iraq. The original AQ is not quite so exclusionary, but is still an exclusively Sunni organization. I don’t see either of them becoming significantly worse threats if the U.S. leaves Iraq; they would still be facing the Shia majority in Iraq, not to mention Iran. In any case, AQ already has a safe haven in the Pakistani tribal areas.

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