The Residuals Debate

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An awful lot of liberals I know seem unduly confident that when their favored candidate is elected President of the United States, he or she will withdraw American troops from Iraq. I think people should pay attention to Progressive Policy Institute chief Will Marshall when he notes that the major candidates at least sometimes seem to more-or-less agree with his case for indefinitely extending the US military occupation of Iraq. Marshall is also to be congratulated for, unlike the candidates themselves, speaking reasonably plainly about what it is he's proposing and trying to defend the idea on the merits. He endorses the CNAS plan favored by the more hawkish elements of the Democratic establishment and specifically endorses the idea that the goal of our Iraq policy should be not ending the war, not ending the occupation, not bringing the troops home, but rather:

Specifically, we should redefine our military mission in Iraq as enforcing three “noes” that are essential to protecting America’s strategic interests — no safe havens for al Qaeda, no genocide, and no wider regional war.

I have a long counterargument below the fold:

Now, CNAS has estimates for the quantity of troops this will entail, but the estimates are completely worthless. The Bush administration, after all was planning back in 2003 to draw down troop levels by 2005, the problem was that at the intersection of their goals and the reality on the ground, they've needed to keep a huge presence on the ground.

What Marshall and CNAS are saying is that "instead of" staying in Iraq until a stable, unified government emerges, we should stay until we're sure leaving won't result in genocide, won't leave a safe haven for al-Qaeda, and won't prompt a regional war. One problem, though, is that there's no way to be sure that civil strife in Iraq won't degenerate into genocide or suck the other regional powers in unless the civil strife comes to an end. The war aims, in short, remain to stay in Iraq until a stable, unified government emerges. Which is to say that the centrist alternative to Bush's Iraq policy is . . . Bush's Iraq policy except they'll intone the words "withdraw combat troops" and instead leave behind only forces for "training" (which to be done properly requires the trainers to embed with Iraqi combat units), "counter-terrorism" (i.e., combat), and "force protection" (i.e., combat).

Except I don't think centrists really mean this. The trouble is that they're engaging in wishful thinking. If you're a member of the Democratic Party counter-elite -- the way these CNAS people and various Brookings and CSIS people are -- it's naturally tempting to believe that replacing the current GOP policy elite with, well, you is going to have magical impacts on the situation. Realistically, though, their plans are unlikely to work and they'll just be left with the same choice we're facing today -- indefinite involvement in a civil conflict that may or may not end and that our presence is probably fueling, or else leaving.

Now, as it happens, of the three "no"s, one of them -- no al-Qaeda haven -- is genuinely vital to American interests. The good is that there's no al-Qaeda safe haven in Iraq right now, many Sunni Arabs who live in the main AQI area of operations are taking up arms against AQI, none of the Shiite factions are friendly toward AQI, and none of Iraq's neighbors are well-disposed toward AQI. That's a fundamentally favorable dynamic, and means we should be able to make the "no safe havens" point a priority without keeping US forces on the ground in Iraq. We will continue to have the capability of putting special forces on the ground in Western Iraq or dropping bombs or firing cruise missiles (this isn't a specific policy initiative -- it's just that our military is capable of doing that stuff) and we need to make it clear to Iraqis that if a safe haven emerges, we'll do it. We can also probably be helpful to people who are fighting AQI in terms of certain kinds of intelligence, and even weapons or money if there's a good reason to think that's necessary.

On the second "no," preventing a regional war isn't genuinely crucial to American security interests. A wider war would, however, be bad and we should do what we can to stop it. This can happen on two levels.

One way to stop it is, of course, to police the sectarian conflicts in Iraq and try to prevent them from becoming sufficiently severe that other powers intervene. This is, however, at odds with Marshall's view that his plan will "get U.S. troops out of the business of mediating Iraq’s sectarian conflicts and focus those who remain on protecting essential American security interests." The problem is that the main method by which the US military can prevent foreign involvement in Iraq is precisely by mediating the conflict. But, of course, we're not succeeding at mediating it. Nor are we succeeding in in preventing foreign involvement -- both Turkey and Iran have been increasing their activities in Iraq.

The only course that's left to us is diplomacy -- to try to do what we can to get Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and whoever else (Israel? Syria?) that their interests are best served by everybody staying out of Iraq. I have no idea whether or not that will work (it sounds, frankly, like a good job for Special Envoy Bill Richardson after he doesn't get on the national ticket) but the only other thing to do is precisely to mediate sectarian conflicts.

With genocide, the case gets even clearer. It doesn't make sense to say that we'll have 60,000 troops wandering around Iraq in the middle of a sectarian conflict that we're not mediating telling people "remember, kids, no genocide!" If a genocide breaks out, and foreign troops go in to stop it, those troops will need to mediate the sectarian conflict. And, again, the only meaningful way to ensure that genocide doesn't take place would be to mediate the sectarian conflict. The risk of genocide and the sectarian conflict aren't two different things.

It's worth saying that the specter of genocide here is purely hypothetical. There's every reason to think that in the six months after we leave Iraq, a lot of people will die, but a lot of people have died in the past six months. There's no particular reason to believe that there's some incipient genocide over and above the current levels of violence.

The good news is that recently we've seen some motion away from the Marshall/CNAS line, particularly on the genocide issue. The campaigns do, however, mostly seem to still be fixed on the idea of "training." And, of course, there's a difference between primary campaign positioning and what people will really do in office -- Marshall/CNAS seem to me to be broadly reflective of the Democratic foreign policy establishment types who continue to be very influential, especially with Clinton.

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Matthew Yglesias is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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