The Thinker

Why we must withdraw from Iraq

As I suggested last October, there was no way to put the state of Iraq back together again. That does not mean, of course, that President Bush is not going to try. He is asking Congress for $100 billion more this fiscal year and $145 billion next fiscal year to try to salvage both Iraq and Afghanistan.

What does all this money buy? If the latest National Intelligence Estimate is to be believed (and granted their track record has not been great), at best it keeps Iraq from descending into complete chaos. Reading between the lines in the NEI, it judges our chances for ultimate success in Iraq to be slim to none. Even if we can improve the security situation there, it suggests that it is unlikely that Iraqis will find an acceptable political settlement. Even if they come up with one, the forces of chaos in the country mean it is unlikely to stick.

It reports that a civil war is underway in Iraq, but calling it just a civil war is inaccurate. It is more than Shia and Sunni killing each other and the de facto partition of Iraq under ethnic lines. It is also Shia killing Shia, as various paramilitary groups try to dominate. Meanwhile, not all is kosher in Kurdistan. Ethnic Arabs are resentful of Kurdish attempts to dominate the city of Kirkuk, which is leading to violence between Arabs and Kurds, and attacks like this one. Al Qaeda in Iraq, though a minor player in this whole mess, is getting more adept at hitting us where it hurts, like shooting down our helicopters.

If forced to find one word that describes Iraq today (and one word seems to be necessarily for the Bush-ites, since they cannot handle complexity), anarchy would suffice. Our forces are simply keeping Iraq from crumbling faster than it would without us. For all practical purposes, the only part of Iraq that is under control is the Green Zone in Baghdad, and even that gets the occasional mortar lobbed into it.

Despite all our forces, we are simply not staunching the chaos. In fact, as the NIE notes, it is clearly getting worse. If some big event happens, like the Sunnis leaving the government, or mass sectarian killings (which has already happened) the NIE sees three scenarios resulting. Notably, a successful outcome is not one of them. The scenarios are partition, the emergence of a Shia strongman, or “anarchic fragmentation of power”.

Those of us in the realist camp can pick out the final solution here. I pick C, “anarchic fragmentation of power.” Why? Because it describes what is already happening. In fact, no one force can completely dominate the other. It is also clear that there is insufficient will to bring the country together. Therefore, the current anarchy will simply continue and worsen. Eventually, mixed neighborhoods will simply cease to exist. The ethnic militias, which already exist, will increase in power as each ethnic group tries to protect its own.

A smaller version of Iraq is playing out in Palestine, and in particular in the Gaza Strip. There the issue is not an ethnic one, but political parties trying to win control through force of arms. Hamas and Fatah, the two dominant political parties in Palestine, are effectively engaged in a civil war with each other. The same may soon be said of Lebanon, where Christian and largely Shia communities are jockeying for power. For now though, Lebanon does not appear to be rushing toward another civil war. Perhaps their bad experience in civil war is holding it at bay.

What can be accurately said about the Iraq mess is that civil war is an inherently internal affair. The NEI, while it notes external influence being exerted by Syria and Iran in Iraq, see their influences as minor.

Iraq’s neighbors influence, and are influenced by, events within Iraq, but the involvement of these outside actors is not likely to be a major driver of violence or the prospects for stability because of the self-sustaining character of Iraq’s internal sectarian dynamics.

Thus, our forces are trying to control what is only in part a civil war. The Bush Administration, however, refuses to refer to the conflict in Iraq as a civil war even though its own intelligence agencies assess it otherwise. Iraq is a civil war that we triggered with our invasion of Iraq in 2003 but which I am convinced would have occurred at some point anyhow. We bear culpability for letting the genie out of the bottle. However, the genie would have escaped at some point anyhow, probably when Saddam Hussein died. In any event, try as we might, and we have tried at the cost of over three thousand of our soldiers dead and tens of thousands wounded, we will never be able to put this genie back in the bottle.

That is why we must get out of Iraq. It is not because we do not have compassion for the suffering underway in Iraq. Nor is it because it will likely get worse, at least in the short term, after we withdraw. It is because we are playing the role of an understaffed medic on a battlefield. We can try to staunch the wounds around us, but they are too many and they are too severe. We must not delude ourselves that can we stop the violence there.

All we can do is acknowledge that Iraq is out of our control, and that we bear some but certainly not all the responsibility for the mess. While we bear some responsibility for it, we cannot control the forces that have become unleashed. Iraq as a state is like a car that was totaled in an accident. No amount of fixing will restore it. Once the violence has played out and some rough order returns then we may be able to help in its reconstruction. Most likely, this will cost less than the $245B that President Bush wants to spend in Iraq and Afghanistan through fiscal year 2008.

However, our withdrawal will have the effect of ensuring that no more of our soldiers have to die in this ill-conceived war. In addition, it will give our military, and our nation, time to heal, and to relearn some important lessons on the limits of our power that we should have retained from Vietnam.


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