Friday, December 01, 2006

Fred Kaplan on What to do in Iraq

Fred Kaplan, surveying the options in Iraq (and dismissing backing the Shiites, as I discuss below) proposes what I think is the only realistic option left:
Hunker down and wait for the smoke to clear. This isn't a bad option, all told. The U.S. military has been steadily moving in this direction for a year or so already. Its larger bases in Iraq are quite secure, though protecting the supply lines to the bases might be tougher under the circumstances.

And here's where Baker, Hamilton, & Co.'s diplomatic proposal—to start talking with Syria, Iran, and the other regional powers—might have some impact. It's hard to justify keeping even 50,000 American troops in Iraq—even if they're just sitting there—unless they have a mission. One mission might be to serve as adjunct to a broader political initiative.

If Iraq falls apart, the bordering states will be tempted to rush into the vacuum, partly for their own security, partly for aggrandizement. If they do, their forces may brush up against one another (Iraq's internal sectarian borders are far from distinct). The United States could serve as a mediator to keep this from happening. To play this role, it helps to have troops on the ground and planes in the air.

This may be the only real purpose of a U.S. military presence in Iraq at this point—to keep the country and the region from erupting into flames. And it won't be possible to accomplish even this purpose without open cooperation with the neighboring countries, including—perhaps especially—Iran.

The days of America's unilateral influence in Iraq are long over, if they weren't mythical from the outset. Look at this week's fiasco. Prime Minister Maliki canceled a dinner with President Bush—just brushed off the president of the United States, the country that's sacrificed thousands of young men and women and spent hundreds of billions of dollars to keep Maliki's government standing—because keeping the date would have upset Muqtada Sadr, the most powerful Shiite militia leader, who apparently now has more leverage than the United States and its 150,000 troops.

It's pathetic, but it's also a wake-up call. Our leverage is minuscule, and it's declining by the day. To talk of grand schemes—partitioning Iraq or pressuring Maliki to form a "reconciliation government" and amend his constitution—is, quite apart from their merits, plainly absurd, because we have no control over what the Iraqis do. We still have some control, though, over what we do and, maybe, over what we can persuade others to do with us. The only choices are to give persuasion a whirl or to sit and watch a piece of the world fall apart.

It's clear that we do not possess the political will to send hundreds of thousands more soldiers to Iraq (and there's no guarantee that such an approach would eventually end the violence anyway.) As it has become increasingly clear that our troops can no longer serve as a cap on the violence, it has become equally clear that it serves no purpose to allow them to continue to die in such numbers when they can no longer hope to hold the country together. At the same time, as Kaplan suggests, it may not be necessary to bring them all home. We might be able to limit their mission and thus their exposure, while still helping to keep the country from falling apart and protecting our interests in the country. It's an option at least, worth further discussion.


adam said...

I think it's well-thought, but it seems like you get caught into having permanent bases there, which I think is the worst signal we could send. What if the disentegration of Iraq is perpetually around the corner, so we end up keeping 50,000 troops there indefinitely? I suppose that's better than 150,000, but again, if you're setting them up at bases, won't that be seen as even more of an occupation and feed the terrorist element there? And how long, really, will any Iraqi gov't tolerate us being around anyway? Is that politically viable for anyone, be it Maliki, Al-Sadr, etc.?

Nat-Wu said...

Yeah, I think the key question is really what we can do that's valuable to enough Iraqi power players that they work with us instead of against us. This could work only if we had international help and cooperation from other nations in the Middle East, because really only other Middle Eastern powers have anything to offer the guys like Sadr. That's really a question for those more familiar with the internal political situation than I am to say though.

As for being a military solution, keeping our bases supplied by air shouldn't be a problem. The cost is bound to be less than trying to run road convoys all over the place, and we'd surely be assuaging some feelings simply by being out of sight. The average Iraqi only has a problem with us now because of what we've done to them during the occupation, not simply because Americans are there. That, they could live with. It's watching their kids die because of the incessant fighting that makes them want us to leave. Drawing back into mega-bases would at least help with that. Perhaps others are thinking in more indirect terms, but simply having the ability to destroy any armies that come into open conflict during a multi-party occupation would give us leverage over the occupiers. If the occupiers can exercise leverage over their clients (Iran over Shiites, Saudi Arabia over Sunnis), that at least gives us more than we have now, without requiring us to be able to destroy Sadr's militia directly or something like that. The truth is that with a few hundred planes and a few thousand men, we could control any the real armies on the ground. Do not get the mistaken impression that somehow the US military is now toothless. We just can't win this form of the war. If what it takes to make it a winnable war is to give up on the occupation, that's what we need to do.