Saturday, July 19, 2008

When - and how - is it right for us to leave Iraq?

"The transition from dictatorship to democracy will take time, but it is worth every effort. Our coalition will stay until our work is done. Then we will leave, and we will leave behind a free Iraq."
- President Bush (aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln announcing the end of major combat operations in Iraq, May 1, 2003)

I don't have a problem with the 16 month timetable for drawing down US troops in Iraq proposed by Barack Obama. It's reasonable and probably necessary for drawing down US forces in Iraq. I'm a big fan of COIN and our recent success in Iraq has validated my belief in it. Even so, when the 'surge' began, my expectation was that succeed or fail, the troop increase had to end by 2010. Lo and behold, January 2009 plus 16 months equals May 2010.

The key is how the drawdown is done and to what purpose. Obama is holding out the carrot to his anti-war fans that the drawdown over 16 months will be total and absolute, regardless of conditions. I disagree with that. I hope, instead, the inevitable drawdown will be thoughful and in pace with conditions, with the possibility that it could be a total withdrawal - under the right conditions.

The current Iraqi government's support for setting a timetable for US withdrawal strikes me as less an anti-American stance by Iraq than like a parent-teen disagreement over independence. The recent Iraqi campaign against the Sadrists, without US guidance, shows an Iraq government eager to strike out on its own. We, as the parent in this metaphor, are cautious. Entering OIF, we held the illusion that the new Iraq would have a relatively easy transition (or childhood), and we would be able to nation-build and plant liberal seeds at a relatively cheap cost. Subsequently, we were disillusioned and have since invested great resources (blood and treasure), emotion, and energy during post-Saddam Iraq's difficult growing pains. For the last 5 years, we have imperfectly, but with sincere commitment, done our best to nurture, educate, and protect the new Iraq. Now, a young adult Iraq feels ready for independence. As the wisened parent, though, we are reluctant to re-adopt the naive belief that Iraq would easily transition to a liberal nation. It's tempting to wonder, can it be that our initial concept of a relatively simple transition for Iraq actually wasn't too far off the mark and may have been achieveable if we had made better decisions? A year-plus of Petraeus-led COIN in Iraq, no matter how dramatically successful, just seems too soon to change our minds. For now, we are reluctant to give up parental oversight, not because we want Iraq to stay forever dependent on us, but because we care so deeply about Iraq's success. Held back by the recent painful memories of the many long scary nights we nursed an Iraq teetering between life and death, we worry whether the young adult Iraq is indeed ready to enter into a predatory world fraught with dangerous influences. Like any loving parent, it's deeply ingrained in us to protect and not allow Iraq to fail. I also wonder how much we actually trust the current Iraqi government to maintain progress without us.

Over Obama's 16 months, I believe President McCain would accept loosening American control and drawing down US forces in Iraq in a measured fashion, but he'd be reluctant to remove our protection altogether and hand over the level of freedom our eager young charge demands. Would President Obama be an equally cautious parent, or would he let go?

Eric

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