We’ve now been at war with, or in, Iraq for almost 20 years, and intermittently at war in Afghanistan for 30 years. Think of it as nearly half a century of experience, all bad. And what is it that Washington seems to have concluded? In Afghanistan, where one disaster after another has occurred, that we Americans can finally do more of the same, somewhat differently calibrated, and so much better. In Iraq, where we had, it seemed, decided that enough was enough and we should simply depart, the calls from a familiar crew for us to stay are growing louder by the week.
The Iraqis, so the argument goes, need us. After all, who would leave them alone, trusting them not to do what they’ve done best in recent years: cut one another’s throats?
Modesty in Washington? Humility? The ability to draw new lessons from long-term experience? None of the above is evidently appropriate for “the indispensable nation,” as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once called the United States, and to whose leaders she attributed the ability to “see further into the future.” None of the above is part of the American arsenal, not when Washington’s weapon of choice, repeatedly consigned to the scrapheap of history and repeatedly rescued, remains a deep conviction that nothing is going to go anything but truly, deeply, madly badly without us, even if, as in Iraq, things have for years gone truly, deeply, madly badly with us.
An expanding crew of Washington-based opiners are now calling for the Obama administration to alter its plans, negotiated in the last months of the Bush administration, for the departure of all American troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. They seem to have taken Albright’s belief in American foresight — even prophesy — to heart and so are basing their arguments on their ability to divine the future.
The problem, it seems, is that, whatever may be happening in the present, Iraq’s future prospects are terrifying, making leaving, if not inconceivable, then as massively irresponsible (as former Washington Post correspondent and bestselling author Tom Ricks wrote recently in a New York Times op-ed) as invading in the first place. Without the U.S. military on hand, we’re told, the Iraqis will almost certainly deep-six democracy, while devolving into major civil violence and ethnic bloodletting, possibly of the sort that convulsed their country in 2005-2006 when, by the way, the U.S. military was present in force.
The various partial winners of Iraq’s much delayed March 7th election will, we were assured beforehand, jockey for power for months trying to cobble together a functioning national government. During that period, violence, it’s said, will surely escalate, potentially endangering the marginal gains made thanks to the U.S. military “surge” of 2007. The possibilities remain endless and, according to these doomsayers, none of them are encouraging: Shiite militias coulduse our withdrawal to stage a violence-filled comeback. Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs is likely to increase and violently so, while al-Qaeda-in-Iraq could move into any post-election power void with its own destructive agenda.
The Warrior-Pundits Occupy the Future
Such predictions are now dribbling out of the world of punditry and into the world of news reporting where the future threatens to become fact long before it makes it onto the scene. Already it’s reported that the anxious U.S. commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, “citing the prospects for political instability and increased violence,” is talking about “plan B’s” to delay the agreed upon withdrawal of all “combat troops” from the country this August. He has, Ricks reported on Foreign Policy’s website, officially requested that a combat brigade remain in or near the troubled northern city of Kirkuk after the deadline.
As 2009 ended, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was suggesting that new negotiations might extend the U.S. position into the post-2011 years. (“I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see agreements between ourselves and the Iraqis that continue a train, equip, and advise role beyond the end of 2011.”) Centcom commander General David Petraeus agrees. More recently, Gates added that a “pretty considerable deterioration” in the country’s security situation might lead to a delay in withdrawal plans (and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has agreed that this is a possibility). Vice President Joe Biden is already talking about re-labeling “combat troops” not sent home in August because, as he put it in an interview with Helene Cooper and Mark Landler of the New York Times, “we’re not leaving behind cooks and quartermasters.” The bulk of the troops remaining, he insisted, “will still be guys who can shoot straight and go get bad guys.”
And a chorus of the usual suspects, Washington’s warrior-pundits and “warrior journalists” (as Tom Hayden calls them), are singing ever louder versions of a song warning of that greatest of all dangers: premature withdrawal. Ricks, for instance, recommended in the Times that, having scuttled the “grandiose original vision” of the Bush invasion, the Obama administration should still “find a way” to keep a “relatively small, tailored force” of 30,000-50,000 troops in Iraq “for many years to come.” (Those numbers, oddly enough, bring to mind the 34,000 U.S. troops that, according to Ricks in his 2006 bestseller Fiasco, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz projected as the future U.S. garrison in Iraq in the weeks before the invasion of 2003.)
Kenneth Pollack, a drumbeater for that invasion, is now wary of removing “the cast” — his metaphor for the U.S. military presence — on the “broken arm” of Iraq too soon since states that have “undergone a major inter-communal civil war have a terrifying rate of recidivism.” For Kimberley and Frederick Kagan, drumbeaters extraordinaires, writing for the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. must start discussing “a long-term military partnership with Iraq beyond 2011,” especially since that country will not be able to defend itself by then.
Why, you might well ask, must we stay in Iraq, given our abysmal record there? Well, say these experts, we are the only force all Iraqis now accept, however grudgingly. We are, according to Pollack, the “peacemakers, the lev[ee] holding back violence… Iraq’s security blanket, and… the broker of political deals… we enforce the rules.” According to Ricks, we are the only “honest brokers” around. According to the Kagans, we were the “guarantor” of the recent elections, and have a kind of “continuing leverage” not available to any other group in that country, “should we choose to use it.”
Today, Iraq is admittedly a mess. On our watch, the country crashed and burned. No one claims that we’ve put it back together. Multi-billions of dollars in reconstruction funds later, the U.S. has been incapable of delivering the simplest things like reliable electricity or potable water to significant parts of the country. Now, the future sits empty and threatening before us. So much time in which so many things could happen, and all of them horrifying, all calling out for us to remain because they just can’t be trusted, they just don’t deliver.
The Sally Fields of American Foreign Policy
Talk about blaming the victim. An uninvited guest breaks into a lousy dinner party, sweeps the already meager meal off the table, smashes the patched-together silverware, busts up the rickety furniture, and then insists on staying ad infinitum because the place is such a mess that someone responsible has to oversee the clean-up process.
What’s remained in all this, remarkably enough, is our confidence in ourselves, our admiration for us, our — well, why not say it? — narcissism. Nothing we’ve done so far stops us from staring into that pool and being struck by what a kindly, helpful face stares back at us. Think of those gathering officials, pundits, journalists, and military figures seemingly eager to imagine the worst and so put the brakes on a full-scale American withdrawal as the Sally Fields of foreign policy. (“I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!”)
When you have an administration that has made backpedaling its modus operandi, this rising chorus in Washington and perhaps among the military in Iraq could prove formidable in an election year (here, not there). What, of course, makes their arguments particularly potent is the fact that they base them almost entirely on things that have yet to happen, that may, in fact, never happen. After all, humans have such a lousy track record as predictors of the future. History regularly surprises us, and yet their dismal tune about that future turns out to be an effective cudgel with which to beat those in favor of getting all U.S. troops out by the end of 2011.
Few remember anymore, but we went through a version of this 40 years ago in Vietnam. There, too, Americans were repeatedly told that the U.S. couldn’t withdraw because, if we left, the enemy would launch a “bloodbath” in South Vietnam. This future bloodbath of the imagination appeared in innumerable official speeches and accounts. It became so real that sometimes it seemed to put the actual, ongoing bloodbath in Vietnam in the shade, and for years it provided a winning explanation for why any departure would have to be interminably and indefinitely delayed. The only problem was: When the last American took that last helicopter out, the bloodbath didn’t happen.
In Iraq, only one thing is really known: after our invasion and with U.S. and allied troops occupying the country in significant numbers, the Iraqis did descend into the charnel house of history, into a monumental bloodbath. It happened in our presence, on our watch, and in significant part thanks to us.
But why should the historical record — the only thing we can, in part, rely on — be taken into account when our pundits and strategists have such privileged access to an otherwise unknown future? In the year to come, based on what we’re seeing now, such arguments may intensify. Terrible prophesies about Iraq’s future without us may multiply. And make no mistake, terrible things could indeed happen in Iraq. They could happen while we are there. They could happen with us gone. But history delivers its surprises more regularly than we imagine — even in Iraq.
In the meantime, it’s worth keeping in mind that not even Americans can occupy the future. It belongs to no one.