What “Middle Course” on Iraq?

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I see John Kerry is now calling for the U.S. to start withdrawing troops from Iraq based on a timetable. Or “benchmarks.” Or whatever it is. One strategist says that “phased withdrawal” is the new consensus; a balance “between anti-war activists who want an immediate pullout and Bush’s stay-the-course policy.” Eh, this middle course is kind of a charade. Iraq is on one of two possible trajectories right now—either the situation is such that the military can make a difference by muddling through and stabilizing the country; or it’s all about to implode and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. If it’s going to implode no matter what, then we get out as soon as humanly possible. No timetables. No benchmarks. Just. Go. Do what you need to do to get out—make sure, for instance, that the soldiers have enough force protection to withdraw without a bloodbath—and leave immediately. Not one cent more or one more dead soldier for a hopeless situation.

The main argument for Kerry-style “benchmarks”—i.e., withdrawing slowly based on an artificial timeline—is that somehow a gradual withdrawal will “undermine the insurgency,” as Kerry says, by peeling off Sunni nationalists from the extremist al-Qaeda types. Well, maybe, maybe not. At this point we just don’t know if the insurgency will stay together long enough to kill off the new government or what once we start leaving. Maybe the strange Baathist-Islamist alliance will only crumble long after the Sunni-Shiite civil war ends. Nor is there any reason to believe that a gradual withdrawal will “frighten” Iraq’s leaders into taking security seriously and compromising with each other. Maybe it will, but at this point, I wouldn’t pretend to predict how Iraqis will react to our moves. Maybe if they see that we’re drawing down on a schedule, all the different factions will lock and load and get ready for what they see as the coming civil war, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The final argument for Kerry’s “benchmark” approach is that withdrawal based on an artificial calendar will somehow motivate the Iraqi National Army into fighting for themselves rather than relying on U.S. protection. That’s insane; the U.S. tried the same thing with Iraqi troops in Mosul in 2004—letting the Army stand up for itself without help—and insurgents quickly overran the city. The Iraqi Army is unmotivated primarily because they don’t have a legitimate government worth fighting or dying for, not because we’re sticking around for too long. Badr militiamen will fight for Shiite fundamentalism; not a bumbling “democratic” National Assembly. Kurdish peshmerga will fight for Kurdistan, not an artificial multiethnic country. And so on. That problem won’t change if we announce that we’re leaving, and they’re going to have to stand up as we stand down.

If the U.S. starts withdrawing based on artificial “benchmarks,” and suddenly something goes horribly wrong, it’s not like it can realistically send more troops back in. The backlash would be immense. On the substance, then, this so-called “middle position” Kerry’s trying to chart is meaningless, although I can see why he’s making it for political reasons—he doesn’t want to stay in Iraq, but he doesn’t want to seem like a far lefty, either. Well, that’s him, he’s a politician. I think there are three options: 1) Either stay the course, aim for stability, and don’t announce any timetables (and hope we actually have enough troops to stay the course; 2) aim for Yemen-style “managed chaos” in Iraq by bolstering the militias and letting them keep order; or 3) get out immediately, and stop causing needless deaths, because Iraq is hopeless, and nothing we do can make any difference, now or ever.

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