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Why the United States shouldn’t withdraw from Iraq: abridged version

December 20, 2007

Yes, you read the title correctly. I don’t think the United States should withdraw from Iraq. My disagreement with the views of some of my fellow bloggers, most of “my blog friends,” and every candidate with a shot at getting my vote in the 2008 elections, stems from a number of ethical and realpolitik considerations.

I feel strongly that the United States has an ethical obligation to repair Iraq–or at least to continue to try. I agree, in essence, with the so-called “Pottery Barn” rule: we broke it, we own it.[1] This is a matter of accepting moral responsibility for all the harm we’ve inflicted on Iraq through our misconceived and bungled invasion.

Against this weighs one brute fact: American men and women continue to die, suffer horrific physical and mental trauma, and otherwise suffer greatly for the Bush Administration’s colossal miscalculations. It would also be unethical to perpetuate that state of affairs simply to salve the conscience of those of us who remain safe and secure at home. I don’t see an easy choice between these two wrongs, but I think that, on balance, the less-bad choice is to continue our commitment to Iraq.

The US presence, in all likelihood, depresses the level of violence in Iraq. I agree with those who argue that “the surge” is something of a smoke-and-mirrors game, and that its contribution to security in Baghdad–and Iraq in general–has been far less than the Bush administration and its boosters would like us to think. But it does provide some evidence that a more robust troop presence deters some level of civil violence in the country. And then there’s the larger problem: the alternative providers of protection are largely pretty nasty sectarian militias.

Indeed, we have real reasons to fear the consequences of the British pullout from Basra.

The full scale of the chaos left behind by British forces in Basra was revealed yesterday as the city’s police chief described a province in the grip of well-armed militias strong enough to overpower security forces and brutal enough to behead women considered not sufficiently Islamic.

As British forces finally handed over security in Basra province, marking the end of 4½ years of control in southern Iraq, Major General Jalil Khalaf, the new police commander, said the occupation had left him with a situation close to mayhem. “They left me militia, they left me gangsters, and they left me all the troubles in the world,” he said in an interview for Guardian Films and ITV.

If true, this actually has very bad implications for the United States. One of the major reasons for improvement in the Iraqi security environment has little do with “the surge,” and much to do with changing coalitional politics among warlords, chieftains, and other violence-wielding heads of patron-client networks in Iraq. Many have thrown their lot in, at least temporarily, with the United States and against the more radical insurgents. In a fashion reminiscent of imperial control, the United States has, in turn, provide them with arms and authority. It has, in the process, produced an environment of widely diffused coercive power.

As Robert Farley notes:

Ezra, Eric Martin, and Rodger Payne provide good commentary on Ned Parker’s LA Times article about the fragmentation of Iraq. As we’ve discussed before, the tribal alliances strategy (if not the Surge itself) has left Iraq without a central government capable of keeping order or executing policy. “Low level reconciliation” is all fine and well, but it fundamentally misses the point; such reconciliation might persuade armed groups to refrain from fighting each other for the time being, but does nothing to increase state capacity. As an oil-producing state Iraq needs less of what we traditionally call state capacity (the ability to tax in particular) than other states, but “less” is different than “none”.

A related problem is that these groups have, as of now, little to gain by reconciling themselves with and placing themselves under the control of the Iraqi state. It is the United States that controls and distributes the goodies, it is the United States that keeps order, and it is to the United States that these groups will appeal when things go badly. All states are “imagined” in some sense, but the central Iraqi state really is fictional in almost every sense of the word.

This echoes a point I made some time ago about the tension between how states usually go about low-cost control over peripheries–by relying on local collaborators and pursuing divide-and-rule policies–and the importance of creating “strong states” in the context of US strategic goals in the war on terror. We aimed, in Iraq, to build a strong state with an inadequate commitment, and now we’ve finally been forced to bring our tactics in line with our capabilities.

But this means that the United States cannot leave now without Iraq sliding into total anarchy. In that sense, Rob is right that “unfortunately, General Petraeus felt the need to overstep his professional bounds and enter the political fray in order to ensure that he would have the capability to execute a strategy that would keep us in Iraq more or less forever…” Converting the situation on the ground in Iraq into one from which we can exit is going to require staying, at least for some time. It takes time, effort, patience, and a certain Machiavellian ruthlessness to reconstitute some sort of central authority under these conditions.

The Turkish raids into Kurdistan, moreover, foreshadow just how bad things could get without a US presence. As long as the United States has troops in the region, the Turks need to show some restraint. But if we leave with the status-quo ante, we have to be very concerned about what would follow.

It might, on the other hand, be the case that the American presence, for the same reason, shields both the Kurdish rebels and Kurdistan’s leadership from the threat of massive Turkish reprisals. But, on balance, I find it difficult to see an American withdrawal leading to a Kurdistani crackdown on the PKK.

The “Kurdish problem” represents only the most pressing threat of regional escalation. We still need to be concerned about the regional consequences such the US withdraw and escalating violence draws in the Saudis, Syrians, or Iranians beyond what we have already seen.

A lot may change, of course. We need to keep our eye on events in Basra. Further evidence, or new developments, could alter the calculations I’ve mentioned in favor of withdrawal. And, of course, the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan itself suggests a need for the US to redeploy some of its overextended military from Iraq.

So that’s the short version of why I don’t support a US pullout. This isn’t the post I wanted to write. I’ve been meaning to produce a much more substantial essay on the subject. But my revised book is due with its publisher in about a month, and I think I’ve held off too long on this matter.

[1] I must note that this catch phrase reduces rather profound issues of moral responsibility to the equivalent of bumping over a lamp at an overpriced chain store. The fact that Thomas Friedman proudly claims credit for it tells us all we need to know (but rather we didn’t) about the state of foreign-policy punditry in this country.

Image source: Boston Globe

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.