Sunday, April 13, 2008

Who Wants to Be the Last to Die for al-Maliki?

I recommend for readers to go back and read Jules Crittenden's outstanding essay on Iraq published last month, "Five Years On: The War for Iraq and Its Lessons."

Crittenden, as well as a few other commentators (like
Victor Davis Hanson), have been unflinching in the support for the deployment, while ever attentive to the heavy price Americans and Iraqis have paid for the pursuit of freedom in post-2003 Iraq.

I've even had my doubts - back in 2006 and early-2007, when things seemed to keep getting worse, and analysts argued persuasively for consideration of "
the drawdown option" and the for unstoppability of "the Iraqi civil war" - but I've yet to call for retreat, and I won't be starting any time soon.

Still, the trend of late, after over a year of progress in Iraq (recently puncuated with a little over a week of sectarian violence), is for war opponents to hammer how costly this war is,
questioning whether we should pay any price to secure Iraq's freedom.

It should be no surprise to readers, then, that I'm displeased with the new essay over at Foreign Policy, "
Why the Surge Doesn’t Matter":

Since the surge was first announced in January 2007, attacks on coalition forces in Iraq have decreased by at least 60 percent. Iraqi civilian casualties are down by a comparable amount.

These impressive gains have stalled in recent months, as the war’s critics have been quick to point out. Violence is ticking back up, they note, and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s recent attempt to regain a footing in Basra suggests that the Iraqi military is not ready for prime time. Truces by Sunni and Shiite militias, not more U.S. troops or new tactics, largely explain the decline in attacks, they say. The few claims of political progress are strained at best.

Such critiques miss the larger point. Surge or no surge, it’s extremely doubtful the U.S. occupation can ultimately produce a successful Iraq—a stable, unitary, democratizing state at peace with its neighbors. The surge is merely the most preliminary precursor to this intended outcome, and even Petraeus admits that it could all come undone overnight. For that matter, Iraq is just one part of a larger strategic picture, as former CENTCOM commander Adm. William J. Fallon tried to impress upon the Bush administration before he resigned. A myopic, irrational focus on Iraq has impaired the United States from making progress on the Arab-Israeli conflict, managing the rise of China, and everything in between. In short, the Iraq war is long past being worth the $120 billion a year being spent to wage it—an amount that exceeds Iraq’s entire annual economic output.

This is hardly the fault of Petraeus, a brilliant general tasked with a nearly impossible mission. Building a decent political order in Iraq has always been something of a fantasy. Even if Petraeus somehow succeeds in bringing violence down to a manageable level, it may be generations before Iraq becomes the “dramatic and inspiring example of freedom” in the Middle East that President Bush has repeatedly invoked. Instead, it will most likely evolve into a country plagued by instability, ethnosectarian violence, weak institutions, and unreliable oil production—if we’re lucky. Few Americans would support spending $12 billion a month in Iraq if they understood that they were buying, at best, another Nigeria, and at worst, Somalia with oil....

The arguments for staying in Iraq are drearily familiar. There will be a “blood bath” if the United States leaves. Withdrawing will only “embolden” al Qaeda. Iraq’s oil will be taken off the market. Iran will seize control of the country. These risks are not only overblown, they are also deeply uncertain. They must be weighed against the well-known costs of sticking around—a U.S. military stretched to the breaking point, a Middle East becoming more radicalized and anti-American, continued distraction from the real fight against al Qaeda in Afghanistan and the real diplomatic action in Asia, to name but a few. Most importantly, we must not forget that even a perfect surge would still have left the United States chasing an expected strategic payoff—a stable, democratic Iraq—that is extremely unlikely to be realized for decades, if at all.

It’s one thing to ask American soldiers to lay their lives on the line for freedom and democracy, or to safeguard their country from weapons of mass destruction. But who wants to be the last man to die for Nuri al-Maliki?

I don't think the risks are "overblown," and I've written about negative security contingencies a few times (see, most recently, "The Consequences of Withrawal From Iraq").

I do think that it will be decades for a democratic Iraq to reach deep consolidation. That it will take a good deal longer is no reason to throw in the towel, nor especially to argue that
the loss of American lives has been for nought.