BUSAN, South Korea — So it’s official now – or at least it really, really looks official this time. We are leaving Iraq at the end of the year. I mentioned this in class, to which I received nearly universal student skepticism. We are covering the Vietnam war now in my US foreign policy class, and we are discussing how America’s involvement there was far longer than the standard images we have from the Vietnam war movies we have all seen.
From around the mid-40s to the mid-70s, the US was in Vietnam in one way or another, and most of my students simply assume that the US will be in Iraq even when we aren’t in Iraq. (Hah! Foreigners just expect US semi-imperialism and don’t believe us anyway when we say we are leaving. That in itself says something.)
And indeed it does look like we will leave behind a small army of contractors (armed in some way or other) and a large embassy staff. On top of that are the recently announced plans to beef up the US presence elsewhere in the Gulf – again creating the foggy, ‘we aren’t in Iraq but we still sorta are’ vibe that everyone is wondering about.
But removing easily identifiable, very public combat forces (i.e., warfighters on the ground) from Iraq is obviously a pretty big break. And the Obama administration very publicly wanted to stay beyond the scheduled departure date (end of 2011). But the US wanted immunity for US forces in Iraq under a new Status of Forces Agreement. The Iraqis didn’t want that, so Obama had to give, and the 2011 deadline will be held. It is worth noting that the 2011 deadline was originally set by the Bush administration in 2008 in the wake of the surge, which should dim, IMO, the criticism from the right on this one. But still, there is now the (inevitable I suppose) backlash from neocons.
I supported the Iraq War until around 2008, at which point it became just too clear that we were in over our heads and had drawn too much blood to justify the modest improvements in governance that resulted. (An important part of my change in thinking was this.) Like the neocons, I feel the impulse to ‘solidify’ gains in Iraq by staying. It was such a titanic effort, that if Iraq collapses again (primarily because the surge didn’t resolve the issues of Iraqi division so much as freeze them), the whole thing will look like an even more colossal failure than before. An obvious model for the neocons would be Korea, where the presence of US forces helped keep Korea on track to the point where it is basically a modern liberal democracy today capable of taking care of itself without much help.
Why It's Time to Say Goodbye
The Iraqis want us to leave. Exum’s post on this is spot-on. We may want to stay, but they clearly don’t. This must weigh very heavily in any decision; indeed, it should be a deal-breaker if Iraqi sovereignty is to have any meaning. If we stay when they don’t want us to, then we really are an empire and it is little more than an occupation.
I do wish some kind of bargain could be found. Like everyone else, I worry that Iraq will collapse in civil war, and a minor US presence could be an important brake. But honestly, we turned that place upside down. Iraqbodycount.com estimates that our intervention resulted in over 100,000 deaths, not to mention the millions wounded, internally and externally displaced, disrupted, etc, etc. We don’t really need to start debating the Green Zone or Fiasco again to know that do we? Honestly, we shouldn’t be very surprised they want us to go.
Can we afford this? I guess I sound like a nag on this. Like Ron Paul, I keep bringing this up again and again, and no one wants to hear it, and everyone thinks I am a scold or a bore. But it still worth nothing that we spend over a trillion dollars on national security per annum, have a budget deficit around $1.5T and $10T in debt, are cruising toward a 100% debt-GDP ration by 2020, and have an aging population that would really like Medicare and Social Security instead of aircraft carriers and occupations.
At some point, we have to make some hard budget choices. Given how badly the Iraq War flew off the rails, and how much the world and Iraqis themselves want us to leave, honestly this is probably one commitment we can afford to cut in the interest of better balancing our obligations with our constraints.
Do we really want to stay in Iraq for 50 years, if indeed Korea, Japan, or Germany are the model? It is worth recalling that back in the 50s, Americans worried similarly about a huge, never-ending, super-expensive commitment to a small, far-away, not too important place (ie, Korea). Now, the neocons are right to say that in the end, Korea turned out well, but it took 50 years, it is not clear how to measure if the US commitment and money spent in Korea was ‘worth it’ or not, and whether the US public would support such long a commitment in Iraq.
In short, if the US had a reasonable, Korean-style shot at normalizing Iraq, but it would require 50 years of commitment, would the US public support it?
Well, given that US support for the Iraq War faded after just a few years, I don’t think that question would survive a referendum. Remember that the war was not sold in 2002 as a 50 year nation-building exercise that would cost trillions of dollars. There is just no way the US voter would have supported that. Wolfowitz even admitted that WMD was the only way to ‘sell’ the war to the public, because the Bush administration knew the public wouldn’t buy a larger, ‘freedom agenda’ mission. And of course, candidate Obama explicitly ran on this plank.
So yes, we should stay involved with Iraq, through diplomacy, aid, and training. We owe them that, but we must in the end, respect both the wishes of the Iraqi and American publics. After so many years of debate on this issue in both countries, it should clear that this is not a fly-by-night poll result. Everyone knows the risks of withdrawal, and they have decided for it nonetheless.