Goal Posts

Ross charges:

And I detect some goalpost-shifting here among the partisans of immediate withdrawal. Back in September, when Petraeus was testifying and the fur was flying, Matt was making roughly the same point that he and Julian and Brian Doherty are making now, except that he was saying things like "maybe Bush can change his line to the idea that if we just keep staying the course for 4 or 5 more years, casualties will drop massively because everyone will already be dead or displaced." Now it's less than two months later, the violence has continued to diminish, and Matt's response is: "After all, internecine violence in Iraq won't continue forever and since most ethnically mixed neighborhoods have already been cleansed, it's at least plausible that the worst is behind us." And he's right - it is at least plausible. But given that only six weeks ago he was throwing out "4 or 5 more years" as a timeline for when Iraq might start to settle down, I think it's also "at least plausible" that when we look back on the last year of American military operations in Iraq, we'll judge them to have played a major role in putting the worst behind us earlier than most people anticipated.

Well, okay, maybe I'm shifting the goal posts. Or maybe there's no inconsistency between the idea that "the worst" violence and ethnic cleansing are now behind us, but that it'll take "4 or 5 more years" are continued violence and ethnic cleansing for Iraq to really settle down. After all, my recollection is that most people regarded the level of violence prevailing in Iraq in late 2003 to be unacceptable and had high hopes that Saddam Hussein's capture would reduce it. Instead, things were worse in 2004 than they were in 2003. Then in 2005, things were worse than they were in 2004. And then in 2006 things were even worse than they'd been in 2005. Now 2007 looks set to be not-quite-as-bad on average as 2006 was. Maybe the downward trend will continue.

On the other hand, maybe things will get worse. Maybe Turkey will invade Kurdistan. Maybe you'll see an uptick in ethnic cleansing elsewhere. Either way, though, for the purposes of this debate the relevant goalposts aren't the timing of declines in violence but the causal mechanism by which they occur. If violence is declining because local areas have already been ethnically cleansed, then the reduction, while preferable to their being more violence, hardly shows that the US military deployment is accomplishing anything worthwhile.

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

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