Fri Aug 19, 2005

Kinds of Quagmires II

Orin Kerr, Ted and Kevin Drum think about options for the future in Iraq and the likelihood of various outcomes. Kevin says,

I happen to think a timed withdrawal is probably the best bet left to us, although I admit that I suspect Iraq is going to end up in chaos no matter what we do. That would be a disaster, but if we can’t stop it anyway there’s no point in making things worse by staying. For now, that’s pretty much where I’m at, and anyone who disagrees really needs to give the chin scratching a rest and tell us clearly and concisely what they’d do differently to turn the tide in this war. Time has run out.

As many have noted, as the situation in Iraq remains stuck, the political push from the pro-war side will increasingly move towards blaming the war’s failure on those who opposed its initiation, who had no power whatsoever over its direction, and even, in some cases, those who sacrificed a great deal to its prosecution. The astonishing vilification of Cindy Sheehan by right-wing talking heads is evidence enough of that. I find it depressing—and a sign of how stuck things now are—that a CT post from almost two years ago stands up pretty well:

[John McCain writes that] “Americaâs mission in Iraq is too important to fail.” … [In my view], any policy that is “too important to fail” risks becoming a self-justifying sinkhole, as Billmon recently argued: “In the end, policy mistakesâ”particularly big onesâ”tend to produce a kind of circular reasoningâ”in which those in charge try to justify the policy by citing the need to avoid, at all costs, the failure of the policy.”

… Now that the U.S. is entrenched in Iraq, it must stay because to withdraw would be to give a victory to “every bad actor in the Middle East.” Iraq is where the war on terror is being fought. But of course itâs being fought there because thatâs where the U.S. has chosen to put its soldiers. Which is why it must stay. Around and around we go. That is the logic of a quagmire, and it makes the analogy to Vietnam clearer. There, it wasnât the sheer number of casualties lost in the jungles or troops fragging their commanders or anti-draft protests at home that were at the root of problem. It was that the U.S.âs presence in the region was, by way of arguments about nation-building there and face-saving here, the very reason for further escalation.

The U.S.’s day-to-day problems in Iraq may end up resembling Northern Ireland rather than Vietnam: car bombings, political assassinations, a general effort by terrorists to violently undermine civil society and resist the occupying power. The cost in terms of soldiers’ lives would be much lower than in Vietnam, but if thereâs no viable way to extricate yourself the feeling of the situation may be much the same. … Involvement there is self-justifying and thereâs no clear way to get out of the loop.

The way to argue against it is to say there are predictable changes to Iraqi society that would trigger a withdrawal. Hence the appeals to post-WWII Europe. Iâm not convinced by this comparison, but others are welcome to make the case for it. My questions to them are the same ones I was asking back in March: Since WWII, how many autocratic or totalitarian countries have been invaded by a democracy, had the bad guys deposed, and a stable democratic regime installed? And how does this number compare to the number of invasions or other interventions that resulted in puppet governments, friendly autocrats, messy long-term military occupations, or outright disasters?

Thereâs some irony—but maybe also some hope—in how the official position on Iraq has evolved. As it has moved away from dealing directly with Al-Qaeda and towards reconstructing the entire political economy of the Middle-East, the administrationâs actions have inevitably begun to imply an analysis of terrorism focused on root-causes. In the wake of the September 11th attacks, any talk of root causes was dismissed as watery left-wing handwringing. Terrorists were simply evil and there was no point in thinking about their origins any further. Now the official view is that the way to eliminate terrorism is to turn countries that produce them into capitalist democracies. If there is a realistic exit strategy from Iraq, it may depend on having believable measures of terrorismâs root-causes. Itâll be interesting to see the people who sneered at the very idea of thinking in those terms eventually pointing to such measures as evidence of the success of their policies.

I guess at this point I’d add that the Northern Ireland analogy was on the right track, but Iraq is really much worse than the North ever was: neither political order nor daily life there ever broke down to anything like the degree that Iraq has. The superpower status of the U.S. has allowed it to create a superpower-sized problem for itself. Kevin is right to fear that the domestic political logic of the mess may now make the phrase “stay the course” a shibboleth in future elections.