With this small essay I would like to make you feel unsettled and maybe even a little bit guilty, but not without hope.
Extremism Takes A Small Blow
Our government continues to say Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki needs to start making some tough decisions. Presumably this would mean taking on the extremist elements within the Iraqi government. But the most obvious victories in the fight against extremism have been the firing of Donald Rumsfeld and the lessening of Dick Cheney’s influence, as evidenced (I hope) by the newfound willingness to sit down and talk with Iran (and by that I really mean the rest of the world).
I believe the ‘06 congressional election clearly served as a rebuke to the Bush administration’s arrogance. And Rumsfeld was fired. Good. This is what we all wanted. But to simply read the election as a mandate for immediate withdrawal is, in my opinion, overreaching.
What about the congress?
By exerting political pressure against the war and pushing for timetables, perhaps the democrats have added to the sense of urgency in the Iraqi government to take some difficult decisions such as allowing our forces to essentially expel al-Sadr as well as moving forward with oil sharing and other issues of reconciliation. So I grant that the political weight-throwing by democrats may have had a positive effect—sort of a good cop bad cop. But here is where the democrats need to be careful. Pressure is good, but actually stating the date of our departure is certainly not good military if not political strategy. If we set a departure date certain, there will be no incentive for reconciliation, at least not on the part of extremists on all sides. Instead, each faction will concentrate on gearing up for the full=scale civil war to follow. Congress should, therefore, either defund the war right now, and accept the consequences, or else simply continue to threaten without actually doing anything and hope for the best.
What do we hope for?
The best hope for stability in Iraq is for the Sunni insurgents to recognize that they must accept their 30% role. I suspect the majority of Iraqis (on both sides) are ready for reconciliation, only there are extremist Sunni insurgents, along with al-Qaida, who are determined to continue the violence it seems no matter what. These are our enemy, not the Shiites. However, it is essential to limit the activity of the Shiite death squads (either by fighting directly or perhaps simply embedding with and babysitting them). Doing so may give moderate Sunni leaders the necessary breathing room to gain more influence. And so far, the surge seems to have begun this trend. Al-Sadr is in Iran and Shiite militia activities are down. The longer it remains this way the better. We must give the surge a chance to bring some degree of stability. Then we must hope for a reconciliation process within the Iraqi government. If this process does not occur within a reasonable amount of time, we should then leave. If the violence cannot be reduced by our current strategy, it is clear the majority of Americans would support withdrawal. John McCain would say we cannot accept defeat, but he is alone. If after we leave a relatively stable situation, the sectarian violence does resume, America will come face to face with an extremely difficult decision. Whether or not we decide to sacrifice more American lives at that point, there can be no question we remain morally obligated to provide substantial material and logistic support in such a way so as to minimize death and destruction on all sides. To not do so would, in my opinion, be about the most selfish and immoral behavior imaginable.
Note to Democrats
If you believe that simply pulling out as soon as possible is the way to go, then you should vote to defund the war. Otherwise, you should continue to play good cop bad cop. What needs to happen is for reasonable democrats and republicans to get together behind closed doors and agree on this strategy. Democrats should not engage in political gamesmanship at the expense of the nation’s best interests. The argument that it’s okay to play politics because it will help you win more power, which you will then use to “at some future time” do the right thing, is flawed in my opinion. It’s just as bad as the “ends justify the means” philosophy which led to this war in the first place. And it’s also arrogant because it assumes that you know what the right thing to do is, which of course all senators do. Democrats (and by democrats I mean Chuck Schumer) really need to be honest with themselves. House democrats are attempting to pass an emergency war spending bill which sets timetables for withdrawal. However, in order to pass the bill, they have included various pork expenditures to entice undecided members. I believe any member who requires such enticements in order to make a vote of conscience has, in fact, no conscience. This gamesmanship is pathetic, and I would be ashamed as a constituent to think my congressman took my personal needs into consideration when voting on issues of national security.
What about troop morale?
I myself refuse to believe what any poll, pundit, politician or military spokesman has to say on this matter. So I do not see how this issue can or should really play a major role in any honest debate. If I had to guess, I would tend to think the divided support for the war hurts rather than helps troop morale. But it seems to be the inevitable price one pays in order to have our particular brand of democracy. So for now I see no alternative. I also can’t imagine how extended tours of duty and inadequate support for the wounded does much for morale either.
A new and wonderful essay by Noah Feldman. 4/07