Re-Thinking Iraq

Since my initial excessive enthusiasm for the Iraq war disintegrated on impact with reality, I've done my best to keep empirical facts at the center of assessing strategy - and to accept the limits of my own understanding more thoroughly. Of course, such an assessment includes reviewing domestic US politics - hence my support for Ron Paul and Barack Obama in the last campaign - and wider American aims and goals in the Middle East and beyond, a sense of the fiscal and diplomatic costs of any course of action, and a willingness to rethink and adjust in the face of new realities in what is a very dynamic and often opaque situation. This can lead to criticisms such as this:

Andrew Sullivan no longer is interested in winning in Iraq, in fact is probably quietly eager for a defeat there, doubtless out of a combination of a certain degree of conviction, a ravenous hunger for leftist Web traffic, and because having decided a few years ago he’d picked the wrong horse in supporting it, he finds it unbearable to imagine that the wrong horse may prove to be the right horse after all.

It's silly to deny that we all have egos, but it seems equally silly to play this kind of game right now. No one has gotten this war right at every juncture, and Iraq continues to shock, surprise, encourage and depress us. This doesn't mean avoiding responsibility for errors: I clearly believed there were WMD stockpiles in Iraq before the war, and also believed that the Bush administration had the capacity to pull off a very ambitious invasion/occupation. On all this, I was wrong. Then I was wrong again in thinking that the metrics Petraeus laid out for the surge wouldn't work (by his own Balkan measurements) and that cutting our losses in 2007 was the least worst option. I was not alone in this and it was an honest error, but born out of a desire to mitigate what I saw as a very, very bleak future. It even forced me to consider whether there was some Western interest in a wider Sunni-Shia conflict in the Middle East. From the still-fragile consensus of today, that too seems too bleak, although the future remains unknowable.

I did, however, get some things right: there were not enough troops after the invasion, as I worried; the Samarra mosque bombing was a turning point, as I feared at the time; Abu Ghraib was not some bizarre exception - it was an undisciplined but real reflection of torture policy concocted in the White House, a policy that damaged the US effort profoundly. This blog gets some things right and some things wrong. It's a real-time airing of provisional thought, and so, unless I were omniscient, I don't see how this could be otherwise. Some can legitimately see this as a weakness of blogging; I prefer to think of it as a strength, if it is seen for what it is.

But can we be real for a second? Am I really very "quietly" "hoping" that the US is "defeated"? For starters, what on earth can this mean at this point? Since we deposed Saddam and the WMD threat was a chimera and some kind of ramshackle unstable government has emerged, I'd say the original goals have been met if at a cost - $2 trillion? $3 trillion? Tehran's regional ascendancy? America's moral standing? 140,000 troops still in the country after six years - nowhere near what was planned, promised or envisaged. Getting out now with as little further damage as possible is, I would have thought, a universal goal - especially when the US is effectively bankrupt. I don't think of it as a "defeat" not to be occupying countries no one would have dreamed of occupying only nine years ago. And I certainly believe and have stated countless times that the soldiers and generals who helped do this deserve our immense gratitude and support.

And this, perhaps, is where the debate must now head. If US withdrawal precipitates another round of sectarian conflict, should we stay? Should we send troops back into areas now controlled by various Iraqi troops and cops? How flexible should we be in withdrawing in a very fluid situation?

My best bet at this point is that Obama should stick to his desire and intent to withdraw all troops within the next two years. Two years is a rough outline - and could be adjusted forward and back as events dictate. Pragmatism should rule. Broader regional questions will have an impact as well, especially relations with Iran. But the goal must be getting out. What I worry about is some neoconservative attempts to entrench US enmeshment in Iraq for much, much longer.

The reason for my worry can best be described by a series of questions. Why should the US be permanently militarily rooted in a region as thorny and as fraught with danger as Iraq - with permanent bases in a deeply Muslim country and troop levels of well over 100,000 for the foreseeable future? Isn't this a hostage to fortune? Have we not learned from the British imperial experience? Are we really contemplating an America that is not just financing tens of thousands of troops in Japan and Germany for the indefinite future, but also in Afghanistan and Iraq, two of the most unpredictable an unstable "countries" outside Africa on the planet - and the graveyard of countless empires before? My core judgment is no. And after the past eight years, it seems to me that the benefit of the doubt should rest with those of us who want to leave the place as swiftly as possible, with as minimal a presence going forward as is responsible.

Yes, this newfound modesty in American goals is a product of my own evolution from neoconservatism. I have found the last seven years to be a wrenching occasion that required me to rethink many of the assumptions I once lazily took for granted. It has been a bit of an epiphany for me, and I have not had the luxury of having such an epiphany in private. This blog has forced me to reveal my hand hourly and daily through a years-long conflict. Many neocons, in contrast, seem utterly unfazed by the experience and eager to expand the conflict into Gaza and Iran, as if all this has been a successful preamble to the real deal. I do not doubt that they are sincere in this; and I am not accusing them of some kind of treason, as JPod does me. I am rather concerned that they seem to have learned only that this tragic conflict needs to be followed by another and that this endless, escalating war in a region riven by apocalyptic religion and feuds beyond any of our understanding is somehow our destiny.

I am not so convinced. I find it hard to understand why anyone able to see Western interests clearly could be so convinced. It behooves no one not to make the best of our current entanglement. But I do not want this episode in Iraq to be understood in retrospect as anything but a mistake, let alone a stepping stone for another war. It was a mistake, as most Americans now understand - even if catastrophe has been survived, even if the categories of "victory" and "defeat" are all but meaningless given the history of the past seven years, even if some kind of non-dictatorship and non-civil war can emerge in the coming years.

If we haven't learned that, then we may be incapable of learning anything. And that is not a function of hoping against America. It is a function of trying to rescue America from the trap it is now in.