Friday, December 03, 2004

Iraq: responsibility and credibility

In recent months, the debate about why we are in Iraq has increasingly narrowed in scope to two essential arguments. The first, most usually uttered by right-wingers, is that no matter how bad things get, we can't pull out, because it'll ruin our "credibility" with the terrorists, thus emboldening them in their assault on our society. The second argument, most usually put forth by progressives, is that we owe it to the Iraqis not to leave the place a bigger mess than we found it.

To both of these arguments, my basic response is: it's important to be able to admit mistakes and move on. To the liberals I would simply say that sometimes you have to admit that, as much as it's the responsible thing to do to clean up your own mess, in certain situations by sticking around you're only going to make a situation worse. Most of us can probably think of any number of personal examples.

For the right-wingers, I'd start by noting that while I appreciate the moral importance of following through on the things you say you're going to do, the functional argument about credibility is, well, not credible. Leaving leave aside the issue of whether the resistance currently operating in Iraq have anything to do with the terrorists that have attacked Western cities repeatedly in the last few years, let me make two points.

First of all, pasty-faced white men talking about "cred" always seem to me to have an undeniable "wanksta" quality (a point brilliantly satirized in this video, produced right before the Republican convention in New York this summer). Second, as a simple matter of historical causality, the argument about credibility is just not sound. The people making this argument always like to wheel out "Munich 1938" to support their point, but the more recent and relevant examples are things like the U.S. retreat from Vietnam, after which none of those predicted dominoes fell; or Reagan's retreat from Beirut in 1983, when again, nothing happened (although some people, subscribing to a conspiratorial Hegelianism, attribute 9-11 in part to Reagan's fecklessness eighteen years earlier). In short, I just don't buy that leaving Iraq would harm our ability to credibly go after true terrorists like Osama bin Laden.

What's terrible in the case of our Iraq policy is that, pace Rumsfeld, anyone who had open eyes knew in advance that Iraq was going to be a disaster that would likely result in a situation in which we would be humiliatingly forced to leave. And just because we're in a hole now is no reason either to exculpate the initial decision to dig the hole, or to continue digging. Right-wingers characterize the situation in Iraq as a "battle of wills" and believe that merely by dint of perseverance we can "win." But as Juan Cole asks, can anyone think of a single instance since 1970 that a Western power has succeeded against a well-armed insurgency in the global South?

In terms of the definition of victory that we went into the war with, "winning" is no longer a meaningful option for us in Iraq -- if it ever was. The question now is only how humiliating our loss will be. In fact, if you subscribe to the credibility argument, just consider this: the longer we stay, the worse our credibility loss will be when we leave.

To use the sort of metaphor that ought to be comprehensible to our "MBA President", us staying the course in Iraq is like a company continuing with a strategy that has already failed: think of IBM continuing to invest in OS/2, or Motorola continuing to invest in Iridium, or Ford continuing to refuse to offer cars in any color except black... you get the idea. Sometimes you just have to admit you've lost and move on. That's part of what being a good leader is all about.

Let me be clear: I'm not saying we should pull all the troops out of Iraq tomorrow. What I'm saying is that a clearly-articulated exit strategy is (and should always have been) a top priority, and that that strategy should not be dependent on some secular or liberal pro-American regime emerging in Iraq. At this point, a stable and legitimate regime in Iraq is simply not compatible with a pro-American or liberal regime. It probably never was possible, but after the way the U.S. has behaved in Iraq this year, it's simply out of the question.


Dutchman said...

Do you think Bush's insistence on January elections in Iraq is part of his "exit strategy"? That no matter what happens, he'll be able to say "Look- elections. Democracy. Freedom is on the march. We're done." Then leave behind the Embassy/Fortress and declare a "win"?

I can't wait for Rumsfeld, ala his "looting happens in a free society" quip, to tell us that suicide bombings at polling places happen in free societies too.

Love your blog. You should be widely read.

Glenn Kelman said...

What is at stake is not simply our credibility as a hegemonic power, but our moral authority. Perhaps we cannot recover that in light of Abu Ghraib, but I believe we have no choice but to try, and that this effort can be successful at least in terms of creating relatively free, stable society. The analogy to Vietnam and other places is not entirely accurate; we can fight this insurgency because it is not of indigenous origin. A BBC report on the increasing effectiveness of Iraqi soldiers noted that they can identify terrorists more readily than Americans by recognizing Jordanian, Saudi and Egyptian accents. Surely there are dozens of examples, some from Iraq in fact, of the U.S. propping up regimes facing armed opposition? And I believe the Iraq regime we have installed is far better than the one we replaced.

For all the lies that got us into the war, and all the ineptitude, arrogance and immorality that has tarnished our effort thus far, no liberal I've met, myself included, is willing to accept the carnage that will result if we leave today. When people talk about abandoning Iraq, I always find myself wondering what time-table they actually have in mind and what costs in terms of Iraqi lives they are willing to accept. "Leave! Leave! Leave!" they say but do they really mean over 100,000 troops, out in two weeks?

Anonymous said...

There's no certainty that our staying in Iraq will make things any better then our immediate withdrawal, but I find it ironic that the people I know who supported the invasion for reasons of Saddam's cruelty but who knew little of the history of the place now believe that if we leave it will be much worse. We can't know.

I like your site too, and will be back.