TCS Daily


Exit Iraq, But How?

By Max Borders - November 29, 2005 12:00 AM

The time to begin pulling out of Iraq is nigh. I say this neither as an antiwar zealot, nor as one who believes Iraq is a quagmire. Indeed, I think invading Iraq was the right thing to do. I also think the occupation has been successful thus far (many may disagree, but I have comparative history on my side.) In any case, the kind of success that comes with finality will depend on US forces leaving sooner than later. But here's the catch: the pullout doesn't have to be sudden.

In fact, a couple of stories like this one have emerged that indicate that the White House does have a withdrawal plan, one that I believe is far superior to the Murtha coalition's "immediate withdrawal" strategery that will surely result in the enemy's victory and the destabilization of the region.

The good news is that there seems to be consensus forming in Washington about such a plan -- though we should be suspicious of foreign policy born out of consensus. The bad news is that politics of the ugliest sort have evidently forced a specific timetable.

A Difficult Decision

Before going into the reasons the coalition should begin pulling out based on this or some similar plan (if we haven't already been doing so), I should address some of the very good reasons people have for thinking we should stay longer:

First, any plans for immediate withdrawal from Iraq could give the enemies of the US the idea that we couldn't finish the job - that the US is a "paper tiger." The problem is that our enemies are not likely to think differently five, even ten years from now, as long as they believe their actions (terrorism) resulted in our withdrawal, whenever it happens.

Consider, for example, the rhetoric of terror-groups like Hamas in response to Israel's withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza. "The Israelis are leaving Gaza because they can no longer tolerate the bloodshed we have inflicted on them," said a simple shopkeeper, echoing his leaders. The Jewish settlers had been there for decades. This suggests we must seek out other ways besides duration-of-stay to send a message that we mean business.

The second concern about the timing of a withdrawal has to do with intra-national and regional stability. Could a pullout result in total chaos? Warlordism? Civil war among the factions? These are very troubling prospects, but no one has offered any indication of how a continued US occupation will prevent these awful contingencies. "As the Iraqis stand up, we'll stand down" is meaningful as soundbites go, but we have to wonder if the Iraqis will ever have the conviction truly to stand up as long as US forces remain; which is why if one reads very carefully between the President's lines, one won't find a standing-down point, but rather a process.

Why Pull Out?

1) Dependency & Corruption

The nascent power structures that have formed in Iraq are coming to depend too heavily on US military and financial resources.

Just like recipients of foreign aid (e.g. the countries that comprise sub-Saharan Africa), the disease of dependency will afflict Iraq, too. If we wait too long, Iraq will become like the spoiled teenager who never left home because his parents coddled him until he was twenty-eight.

Foreign aid not only creates a mentality of expectation, it creates a set of perverse incentives that generate corruption. In this month's Atlantic, James Fallows provides some anecdotal evidence of this phenomenon already starting in Iraq. Fallows quotes from an email he received from a contact in Baghdad): "I have to tell you that corruption is eating the guts of this counter-insurgency effort."

And according to this Knight-Ridder story (as well as others):

"Iraqi Defense Minister Saadoun al-Dulaimi confirmed most of audit board report's findings in an interview last Sunday, saying that at least $500 million in Iraqi money essentially has disappeared. He's removed nine senior officials so far - he fired the ministry's procurement chief and placed his own deputy minister, Bruska Shaways, on leave - and said he was working through a list of other employees who faced dismissal and possible criminal charges."

It is more-or-less basic to economic theory that if you reward any behavior, you're more likely to get more of it. In this case, the behavior is dependency. That is why people who collected entitlement checks for extra children tend to have more children. It is also why instead of "what can we do?" the Iraqi people will soon start asking "what else will you do for us?" The challenge is to arrest the process of dependency before weaning becomes too difficult.

2) Aggravating Jihadism; Tying Up Resources

A second, somewhat more tenuous reason to exit Iraq soon is that al Qaeda and its terrorist proxies genuinely believe they are there to fight a holy war against the US. Some people believe that if the US military leaves, so will the terrorists. However, against this general view, it has been countered that skirmishes in Iraq keep terrorists preoccupied (i.e. on non-US soil), which theoretically makes the US less vulnerable to domestic attacks.

There is probably something to both of these perspectives, but it is difficult to determine anything conclusive about an enemy that operates on a paradise calculus. In the long term, the US is probably not going to accrue solid gains against terrorism through many more years of overt, smaller-scale desert operations, cat-and-mouse games with Zarqawi, and the notion that Iraq is some kind of terrorist flypaper. Instead, the democratic changes that have been set in motion are likely to do more for the region, its economy, and (thereby) against its tendency to produce jihadis.

With Syria and Iran both behaving badly, it may make sense to maintain a small military presence in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but withdraw enough of the forces to satisfy appearances and to begin repurposing US military assets for potential use against other threats. The projection of American power can be covert, decentralized, and highly specialized. That means US power would be more like latent spores ready to activate and grow at a moment's notice, rather than a concentrated cluster of partially hamstrung firepower centered mostly in Baghdad.

A withdrawal from Iraq does not have to occur in a moment, but can extend over many months. In fact, the generals may already be in the middle of this process. That means the Iraqi and US militaries can work towards an equilibrium where for every US squad that exits Iraq, an Iraqi squad replaces it. We could very well be within such a deliberate, piecemeal withdrawal process right now, as deployment-redeployment plans have staggered the number of troops in the area to progressively lower levels (from 350,000 in 2003 to the current level of around 200,000 according to some reports). And that's precisely why the Congress should stay out of this issue and let the generals do what they're paid to do. It's also why the "bring 'em home now!" crowd should be patient -- indeed, silent.

3) Political Windfall

A piecemeal pullout that is finalized somewhere in the period before the 2008 election will give president Bush's successor a better platform from which to launch her campaign (pardon the slip). Of course, the pullout will have to occur with a fair amount of success and be executed properly -- both in strategic and PR terms.

Such leads to the all-important question...

How Should the US Pull Out?

Here is a sketch of the exit strategy:

  1. Don't announce any more withdrawal plans or numbers to the Press. Start (or continue) the withdrawal a little at a time. Practice a "don't ask, don't tell policy" with the Media and Congress, and be sure the Iraqi leadership understands the deal. This will keep both of Iraq's enemies (the Media and the Insurgents) from becoming emboldened in their respective agendas.

  1. Once the press does figure it out that it's really happening, strongly encourage the Iraqi leadership to say "we were ready," and "we asked the US to withdraw." Such may not be what the Iraqi leadership actually wants or believes, but it is in their interests and ours to say so. For not only will their enemies be waiting for signs of weakness, but the Iraqis may stand to lose some carrots if they whine. Then all the Administration has to do is say that the leaders of a legitimate sovereign state claimed they were prepared to face the challenges on their own, and that they no longer felt our presence was necessary.

  1. Point to successes and milestones that justify withdrawal. Elections, Iraqi Governing Council, and a constitution, are all milestones that justify exiting. The US will have to point to these vigorously, and not allow the press to undervalue them as they have thus far.

  1. Make sure a deal is struck with the Iraqi leadership for a sizable presence of covert ops and military consultants to remain. Such will represent non-addicting support for the Iraqi military, and will allow the US to keep a toehold of power in the region. (Think post-WWII Germany on a smaller scale.)

  1. Begin scaling down the amount of aid money flowing into Iraq. Not so fast that the Iraqis are helpless, but fast enough so that they can begin the process of weaning, realigning, and gaining self-sufficiency.

  1. Establish trade ties w/Iraq to replace aid dependency (especially oil). Encourage the Iraqi oil ministers and other power players to open the Iraqi market to all competitors (as opposed to contracted companies, which -- though they may have been necessary evils at one time -- will become a hindrance to development). Let other international interests back in to supercharge the oil industry for Iraq. And continue to support market-friendly institutions that will keep the resource curse from vexing the Iraqi people and their leadership, while keeping oil revenues flowing into Iraq's coffers.

  1. Do everything in your power quickly to prepare the Iraqi military and police force to face the insurgents and terrorists. The fastest, most effective way to get the Iraqi soldiers ready is for them to get the idea that a US withdrawal is imminent.

  1. Keep the Iraqis sufficiently armed. This is a policy similar to that Reagan used to help anti-communist guerrilla forces and opposition groups during the eighties. Such a strategy armed the mujahedeen in Afghanistan (including UBL) against the Soviets, as well as Saddam Hussein against Iran. But the benefits of arming an enemy's enemy normally outweigh the costs and risks.

  1. Force the media to focus on other serious threats to national security, such as Syria, North Korea and Iran. This full axis of evil has yet fully to be dealt with. The Media will forget about Iraq like they forgot about Afghanistan. Given that there are pressing national security issues that require our attention, the President and the Pentagon might as well use that fact to their advantage.

  1. Brace for short-term escalation in attacks and troubles. The Iraqis may have anywhere from six months to a year of problems with insurgents, but this adjustment period may be necessary for the country to stabilize in the absence of US force.

There are a variety of conflicting reports on whether the Iraqis are anywhere near ready to go it alone as a military and police force. But one must ask if a continued US occupation will soon reach (or will soon reach) a point of diminishing marginal returns with respect to their capabilities. "Increased coalition presence feeds the notion of occupation," said CENTCOM commander General Casey, and "it contributes to the dependency of Iraqi security forces." Since Casey and Abizaid are already fully aware of this, it makes the beltway rows over immediate withdrawal seem that much more ridiculous and dangerous to our national interests. If the generals are pressed too hastily, their plans for a piecemeal withdrawal will go horribly awry. So a slow pullout starting very soon makes sense. A sudden pullout does not.

Ultimately, the military brass will have to make this call, and at the same time refuse to allow mission creep, politics, and personal interest to cloud their collective judgment. They will also have to continue communicating with the Iraqi military about their intentions. Only when the US has finally departed will Iraq be ready to show the world that it can be a free and independent democracy in the Middle East -- capable of defending itself, remaining self-sufficient, and standing as a shining example to the anachronistic societies and barbarity that surround them.

Max Borders recently joined TCS as Managing Editor.

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