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These well-considered responses broaden the debate that the United States must have on its troubled Iraq policy. All the critiques raise key questions that have helped me to clarify my argument. Below I will briefly address five of these questions.
But before getting to the specifics, I will make an observation about the aim of my argument, prompted by the critics who offer starkly different solutions to the Iraq problem. My aim in offering an exit strategy is to advance the policy debate. Success in that effort requires presenting a new strategy—a genuine alternative to existing options that has a reasonable chance of achieving U.S. interests, as they are broadly understood by the American political class. This I have attempted to do, while my critics’ proposals fall short.
Randall Forsberg raises one question most pointedly: why the 18-month timeline? Senator Russell Feingold and Larry Korb favor slightly shorter (12 months) and slightly longer (24 months) timelines respectively. Ambassador Barbara Bodine, Feingold, Forsberg, Korb, Chris Preble and I agree that committing to a particular withdrawal date may take the nationalist air out of the insurgency and may focus the minds of Iraqi politicians, administrators, and soldiers on the deals they need to make and the problems they need to solve. What, then, do I wish to do with these 18 months?
Many have commented that there remain key lacunae in the Iraqi forces that leave them vulnerable to the military equivalent of a sucker punch—a thin political and military command structure, poor military communications systems, and little autonomous logistical capacity; a year seems a reasonable period to ameliorate these problems, especially if Iraqi politicians and officers know that they must soon stand on their own feet. An additional six months seems a reasonable period to organize and implement a deliberate withdrawal of U.S. troops. Additionally, a good deal of diplomacy—consultation, coercion, and bribery—is necessary to ensure that regional and distant powers support Iraq diplomatically, economically, and militarily once U.S. troops have gone. I expect this to take a bit of time as well. For the “date certain” to serve its purpose of energizing the Iraqi security forces and de-energizing the insurgency, however, it has to come soon enough to matter psychologically and politically. Anything beyond two years just seems too long.
A second critique is that my call for sectarian self-government ignores the fact that members of the three key Iraqi groups are often interspersed and sometimes intermarried, and that there are other smaller, but nevertheless important groups, particularly the Turkmen. Ambassador Bodine and Eliot Weinberger both make this point.
I acknowledge this general problem in my article, though experts on the region are right to highlight the security and political complexities these groups present. Members of these groups will have to decide whether they wish to live as minorities in areas governed by the others—whether those areas are based on the existing governorates or new regional or sectarian governments. Members of these groups will need to decide whether they want to attack “enemy” neighbors when they know full well that their own kinsmen are vulnerable to similar attacks in other places. We have seen these kinds of dilemmas before, and the Iraqis are unlikely to resolve them without some violence. The United States and other external powers can exercise some political leverage on how these problems are addressed, but U.S. leaders and the public should be prepared for some ugly behavior by all sides.
Weinberger rightly observes that I said not “a word about reconstruction.” Reconstruction efforts have not been easy thus far, and I expect them to remain difficult, but contingent promises of economic assistance in key areas might be a way to buy a little peace among the intermixed groups. Nevertheless, many close observers of the evolution of the politics among these parties over the last 30 months report that sectarian political differences have become deeper and nastier by the month, so it is unlikely that the United States can reconcile Iraq’s groups unless it is willing to stay indefinitely.
A Realist’s View
Three of the critics—Vivek Chibber, Helena Cobban, and Eliot Weinberger—discount my disengagement strategy and argue for a different paradigm. Though my disengagement plan may seem radical in comparison to the enunciated policy of the Bush administration, these critics quite rightly position me in a “realist” framework. I try to figure out how to use U.S. power more effectively to achieve limited but important security interests at lower costs and with a higher probability of success. Cobban argues it is too late for this, and Weinberger and Chibber seem to believe that my strategy is mere energy imperialism by another name. I reject this charge: my purpose is not to steal Iraq’s oil wealth but rather to ensure that it not fall into mischievous hands or tempt others into war.
According to Cobban, the United States has already lost to Iran in Iraq and the Gulf in any case (and apparently to China in the Pacific). This obituary seems premature; the United States has a great many assets to bring to a political fight in the Persian Gulf. Cobban and Weinberger suggest that we turn the whole business over to the United Nations. But the UN has no more assets to commit to this effort than does the United States, though it would be smart to add a UN element to the diplomatic and political component of the disengagement strategy I recommend. The United States could indeed use more legitimacy and needs to shop for it wherever it can be found.
Cobban is right to note the difficulties that the United States will have with Iran in the event of disengagement, difficulties that exist already. That said, the Iraqi Shia are Arabs, not Persians, and Arab and Iraqi nationalism are not unknown to them. Are the Shia so likely to trade domination by Sunni Iraqis for domination by Persians? In local power struggles the off-shore great power ally is easier to manage than the one next door, a phenomenon the United States needs to learn to exploit in all its foreign policy.
Nir Rosen offers an altogether different critique. Though he acknowledges the potential for civil war within Iraq, he discounts the other nightmare scenarios that my strategy tries to buffer against. He is certain that once the United States has left Iraq, external al Qaeda sympathizers will be expelled by the Iraqis; the Baath simply will not return to power because they cannot; the Kurds will secede, but neither civil war nor Kurdish secession will cause a regional war. Thus, the United States need not engage in the military and diplomatic preparations that I recommend.
I agree with some, though not all, of Rosen’s predictions, but within the constraints of disengaging ground forces to weaken the nationalist energies of the insurgency and engender some pragmatism among the key Iraqi players, the United States would be prudent to use its considerable resources to encourage the happy outcomes and discourage the unhappy ones. Moreover, Rosen, like Chibber, Cobban, and Weinberger, seems uninterested in actually changing U.S. policy. Republican and Democratic supporters of President Bush’s strategy, or alternative stay-the-course strategies, defend their policies with promises of nightmare scenarios that would follow the exit of U.S. troops. For some these concerns are genuine, and they resonate with the broader public. To change U.S. policy these concerns must be addressed.
Finally, a somewhat different strategy is offered by Senator Joseph Biden, who seems to believe a timeline for withdrawal has already been set “naturally” by the gradual erosion of the U.S. army’s size and quality. It is longer than 18 months, but not that much longer, though his plan leaves a significant force—several tens of thousands of troops—in Iraq on an open-ended basis. During the next year or two the senator proposes that the United States apply much more sustained energy to three problems: the sectarian division of the country, the incompetence and corruption of the government, and the inadequacies of the army and police. Why the mere application of more energy will solve these problems is a mystery, as their origins lie within Iraqi society and history and their interaction with the massive U.S. presence in the country. Yet if we do not solve these problems, then, according to the senator, “nothing we can do will salvage Iraq.”
I do not accept this; instead I argue that we must set a date certain to disengage as part of an overall shift to a strategy that is explicitly configured to “manage” Iraq and its potential problems from the outside in, rather than “administer” them from the inside out, a strategy that I believe the United States can sustain for many years. In contrast to several of my critics in this issue, I think that many other states in the region, and beyond it, will share an interest in the success of this strategy. I fear that the senator’s strategy is not only likely to fail, it is likely to fail gracelessly—it leaves the U.S. position vulnerable to unpredictable events in Iraq and the exhaustion of public patience for any Persian Gulf activism, as promises of progress in Iraq go regularly unmet.
Barry R. Posen is the Ford International Professor of Political Science at MIT and is director emeritus of MIT's Security Studies Program. He is the author of Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy, Inadvertent Escalation: Conventional War and Nuclear Risks and The Sources of Military Doctrine.
The war as it has evolved badly serves U.S. interests. A well-planned disengagement will serve them much better by reducing military, economic, and political costs.
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