Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Withdraw from Iraq?

Paul Krugman has a good column in today’s NYT (it’s behind the pay wall; remember, if you have access to the library database Proquest you can get your fix of NYT comment that way) on why the US ought to leave Iraq. Most noteworthily he makes the following comments:

The fact is that we're not going to stay in Iraq until we achieve victory, whatever that means in this context. At most, we'll stay until the American military can take no more.

Mr. Bush never asked the nation for the sacrifices -- higher taxes, a bigger military and, possibly, a revived draft -- that might have made a long-term commitment to Iraq possible. Instead, the war has been fought on borrowed money and borrowed time. And time is running out. With some military units on their third tour of duty in Iraq, the superb volunteer army that Mr. Bush inherited is in increasing danger of facing a collapse in quality and morale similar to the collapse of the officer corps in the early 1970's.

So the question isn't whether things will be ugly after American forces leave Iraq. They probably will. The question, instead, is whether it makes sense to keep the war going for another year or two, which is all the time we realistically have.

Pessimists think that Iraq will fall into chaos whenever we leave. If so, we're better off leaving sooner rather than later. As a Marine officer quoted by James Fallows in the current Atlantic Monthly puts it, ''We can lose in Iraq and destroy our Army, or we can just lose.''

And there's a good case to be made that our departure will actually improve matters. As Mr. Murtha pointed out in his speech, the insurgency derives much of its support from the perception that it's resisting a foreign occupier. Once we're gone, the odds are that Iraqis, who don't have a tradition of religious extremism, will turn on fanatical foreigners like Zarqawi.

The only way to justify staying in Iraq is to make the case that stretching the U.S. army to its breaking point will buy time for something good to happen. I don't think you can make that case convincingly. So Mr. Murtha is right: it's time to leave.

To be honest I'm still not sure when the Americans ought to leave Iraq. I opposed the war in the first place, but after all the bad things we have done to the Iraqi people I think that the question that needs to be asked now is: what course of action will be best for the people of Iraq?

In which case, there are three possible outcomes of a withdrawal of American troops in the near future:

1. With the visible enemy removed from the country, much of the impetus for the insurgents is removed. Those insurgents who are motivated primarily by dislike of the Americans (like the ex-Baathists and ex army members) are able to do a deal with the existing government, while those insurgents who are motivated primarily be religious fanaticism (Al Qaeda in Iraq) are marginalised and loose the support of ordinary Iraqis. As it is very hard to run an insurgency without popular support, they quickly become a minor force. Somehow tensions between the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds are diffused and the nation of Iraq heads towards a tolerable future.

2. The country collapses into a sectarian civil war (Shiites versus Sunnis, while the Kurds try to secede). Of all wars, civil wars tend to be the most bloody with the worst abuses of civilians (see former Yugoslavia or Rwanda or the USA). The end result is tragic and may destabilise the whole region.

3. A full scale civil war is averted but the existing government enters into a significant war with the insurgents; one which leads to large human rights violations; and, ultimately an Iraqi government which is almost as brutal as Saddam was.

Krugman, however, makes a couple of additional points which are well worth considering in this calculus. The first is that, due to the economic, political and social costs of the war to the US, the ultimate departure of US troops will, in all probability, not be dictated by “victory” (victory meaning leaving at a time when the Iraqi government is capable of handling internal tensions and the insurgents) but by necessity. Or, in other words, the Americans will pull out, not when they “win” but when they can take no more (this being much sooner than any “victory”).

In which case the question which needs to be asked is to what extent would pulling out ASAP make increase or decrease the chances of 1 (above) happening. I think that there’s a good case that it would increase the chances. That being said there is a reasonable case to be made for waiting until the Iraqi army is stronger/strong enough to fight the insurgents as well. Although that assumes that the Iraqi army will ever be this strong.

On top of this Krugman also brings into the equation the economic and military costs to the US of sticking round. Which are worth considering too, given that a large scale recession in American will be felt around the world (similarities here to the probable role of the Vietnam war in the stagflation of the 1970s). Of course, you could argue that America with a crippled army mightn’t be so bad – it would certainly reduce their taste for adventurism in the near future. However, it’s also worth considering that the words “crippled army” conceal within them the huge suffering of the US troops (who come, disproportionately from the poorer sectors of US society). It’s also worth considering that, while the US has a horrible record with international interventions, it isn’t the most-nasty player on the world stage, by any means. If a crippled US army led to a new era of multi-literalism that would be great; if it just leads to the unchecked rise of China along with increased belligerence from: the Sudan, Iran, North Korea etc. that might not be so great. Furthermore, in the past, reluctance – on the US public’s behalf – for conventional war hasn’t really led to better behaviour by the US. It’s just led to covert action.

All in all a complex situation, although I have to say that I am increasingly leaning to the “troops out soon position”.

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