Stephen Biddle, Michael O'Hanlon, and Kenneth Pollack argue that withdrawing from Iraq is a mistake:

Some argue that to [raise the potential of creating a new and better political order in Iraq], the United States must withdraw, or threaten to withdraw, its troops. They believe this would force Iraqi leaders to put their differences aside and reach a grand compromise on reconciliation, because Iraqis would need to solve their own problems either without a U.S. military crutch or in order to preserve a U.S. presence as a reward for reconciliation. There is some merit to this logic. It is true that the presence of U.S. forces reduces the stakes for Iraqi politicians, since it limits violence. And if Iraq faced chaos otherwise, a threat of withdrawal would certainly be worth trying. But withdrawal is a risky gambit. And progress is now being made without it: violence is down dramatically, and political change, although slow, is under way. Threatening withdrawal might speed this progress, but today it seems more likely to derail it instead.

Reconciliation will require all the major Iraqi factions to accept painful compromises simultaneously. If any major party holds out and decides to fight rather than accept risky sacrifices for the larger good, then its rivals will find it very hard to hold their own followers to the terms of a cease-fire -- likely plunging Iraq back into open warfare. If reconciliation can be done slowly, via small steps, then each stage of compromise is likely to be tolerable, with the risk of one holdout party exploiting the others kept to a manageable level. In contrast, if reconciliation must be done quickly, with a grand bargain rapidly negotiated in the face of an imminent U.S. withdrawal, the necessary compromises will be great -- making them extremely risky for all parties. In a factionalized, poorly institutionalized, immature political system such as Iraq's, many parties would doubt their rivals' motives and could refuse to make such large and risky compromises. The Iraqis, out of fear for their own safety, might well respond to a threatened U.S. withdrawal by preparing for renewed warfare. Rather than persuading the Iraqis to accept huge risks together, a threat of withdrawal would more likely produce the opposite effect.

Leverage to encourage compromise is important, as advocates of withdrawal argue, and U.S. policy has up to now erred in rejecting conditionality for U.S. aid and cooperation. But threatening withdrawal is hardly the only or the best way of gaining such leverage. Any element of U.S. policy can be made conditional -- economic assistance, military aid, the U.S. position in negotiations over the legal status of U.S. forces -- by offering benefits only in exchange for Iraqi cooperation. Withdrawal is the biggest potential threat that Washington can issue, but it is also a blunt instrument with great potential to damage both parties' interests. In an environment of increasing stability, the United States can now hope to succeed with subtler methods.

The whole thing is worth a read. It's really the case for an open-ended liberal imperialism. It's good in a way that that agenda is now honestly on the table.

(Photo: US soldier in Baquba by Luigi Guercia/AFP/Getty.)

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