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August 18, 2005

What Is Success?

So here's my question for those who oppose conditional withdrawal from Iraq: what is success? We're there now, we will, someday in the future, not be there. What is gained through prolonging the interim period? All I ever hear is that we must "finish the job", "win the peace", "not cut and run", and do a variety of other platitudinous things that don't tell me anything.

So when is the job finished? When is the peace won? Do you think we'll somehow crush the insurgency, all evidence of the last few years to the contrary? Will Iraq solve its ethnic conflicts if the US just looks over its shoulder long enough? Assuming we don't set conditions for withdrawal and just remain indefinitely, what are we looking for that'll allow us to wake up one day, judge the war a success, and mosey on back home to ticket tape parades?

This is a serious question. And I'd like some serious, thoughtful answers. I don't want to hear from withdrawal supporters telling me how hopeless the situation is, I want to hear those who think we should stay articulate what we're staying for, what the expended lives and treasure will gain, what conditions will prove the war a success. And then, when that's done, I'd like to know how making those same conditions the conditions for withdrawal would render them less achievable. The pro argument for withdrawal is generally that conditions would give the Iraqis something concrete to work towards and split off the nationalist, anti-American insurgency from the inter-ethnic, tribal insurgency. But we've heard all about that lately -- hell, even Chuck Hagel's saying it. Now I want to hear the best arguments from the other side.

August 18, 2005 in Iraq | Permalink


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» The Democratic Party and the specter of 1968 from Dadahead
...it doesn't simply follow from the fact that there are conceivable scenarios under which Iraq could be turned into a 'success' that the US ought to remain there. [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 19, 2005 5:24:48 AM

» Finding Comparisons from One Caveat
In response to Ezra’s post I’d like to bring up the notion of comparisons.The war in Iraq and the War on Terrorism in general have been heralded as “new kinds of warfare” by persons mainly on the Right.As for [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 19, 2005 9:20:55 AM

» The Most Important Question Of Our Times from Nonplussed
He is not getting any convincing answers, although to be fair I don't think he gets many hawkish readers. Here is the best response so far: The question isn't, "How much better do things have to get before we can leave?" It's, "How much worse can thi... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 19, 2005 12:51:09 PM


I think that this idea from
Giblets at Fafblog may be your best hope.

Posted by: Marc | Aug 18, 2005 11:10:41 PM

1) At what point in the near future can the Western or world economies easily handle a sustained (months) 10-20% or more decrease in oil supply and distribution?

2) At what point can we feel secure there is no organization planning and with the resources to stage one or more 9/11 level events?

3) At what point can we feel secure that the Middle Eastern economies and polities are sustainable with the end of oil production?

4) At what point are we secure that worldwide proselytizing Islam is pluralistic, liberal and tolerant without a radical violent fringe?

The difference, among others, between the Middle East and say Colombia or Indonesia is the available radical international ideology and our economic dependence on its stability.

I will be back, but the short answer is we can leave when they would all rather have us stay.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Aug 18, 2005 11:44:49 PM

I don't care what Bushco thought, and I don't much care what you thought or think. This was not Somalia or Kosovo or Grenada or Gulf War I...just a little bigger.
Nobody can control this anymore.

This was a world changing event, an irreversible irrevocable action of world-historical dimensions. Iraq, IIRC, was ruled by Sunni strongmen for a thousand years and will not be so ruled again. A partition will not be stable.

Civil war, constant violence, religious oppression and sectarian violence...not our problem? If this was Myanmar or Paraguay or Vietnam I would say "outahere."
We broke it and got to fix it. The suffering for them and us has just begun. A lifetime of war, Ezra, and you or nobody else is gonna stop it. Best it to realize it and kick up a gear.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Aug 19, 2005 12:06:17 AM

Ezra, I'd be the last person to suggestion your plea for a "serious" response was naive or disingenuous but I cannot imagine what that serious response would be. Given the false terms this started on, the continuing fasle terms under which i's being extended, why should you reaonably expect there is some serious goal which, once achieved allows us to exit?

Nope. Straight answer, there isn't one. At this point, it's called managing our losses. This is commonly known as "covering your ass".

Posted by: ice weasel | Aug 19, 2005 12:25:01 AM

I don't want to hear from withdrawal supporters telling me how hopeless the situation is . . . .

If I didn't know better, I might think I was a fly on the wall in the White House. Or would that be at Compound W at the Lazy W Ranch?

We have been hearing the answers to your questions for what? The last three years? Why are we in Iraq?

If we shouldn't have been in Iraq in the first place, what goals are attained by staying there indeed?

Posted by: The Heretik | Aug 19, 2005 1:19:38 AM

I've spent the majority of the last two days making the argument for withdrawal. I support withdrawal. This thread isn't against my aliies, it's a chance for those holding the other view to make a cogent argument for it. I've yet to see it.

Posted by: Ezra Klein | Aug 19, 2005 1:48:36 AM

I'd like to dismiss bob as a crank, but, increasingly, I worry that he has a point. The question isn't, "How much better do things have to get before we can leave?" It's, "How much worse can things go if we leave?" And I worry that the answer is, "Much worse."

I was against the invasion, and always thought that in the best case scenario, we'd install a slightly kinder thug of our own - a Saddam-lite. Now I worry that we've lost that possibility. Increasingly, it looks like we have to hope for an Iranian client state, which means we have to hope that Iran stays stable. The second best case is that Iraq continues with its current horrific level of disorder and violence. Under either of those cases, I'd say we could leave forthwith.

But I worry that Iraq is now in play, and that once we leave, every regional power will try to get in on the action. How worried are the Saudis about an Iran that effectively controls large parts of the Iraqi reserve? Do other Sunni states start worrying about a Shi'a superstate? Is Iraq going to become the kindling for larger regional attempts to re-jigger the regional balance of power? Does Iraq as a failed state lead to other ME failed states? Or does UBL get a new training ground, and worse, a new funding source (Iraqi oil)?

So when do we leave? When we realize that we cannot have any effect on the stability of the government in the future. Any government, even one whose precepts we hate.

The problem is that to make that argument, you have to say to the American people, "It was better for us when Hussein was in power." And the only people who can credibly make that case are those who were against the war or who acknowledge that going in was a mistake. (There is a real dearth of those people.) Because the underlying argument is that we have to stay until we rectify the mistake of having removed an unbelievably brutal and horrible dictator from power.

I don't much care for that argument, but I fear it might be the right one. I really, really hope bob is just freaking me out, and leading me toward my darkest fears.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Aug 19, 2005 1:57:11 AM

Well, the people I trust most on Iraq are Wes Clark, Al Gore (silent on Iraq for a while) , Gary Hart, Anthony Cordesman, + the good folks at LAT & NeedleNose. And Chris Allbritton. Juan Cole & Intel Dump are good as well. You you you know their sites, look up the blog posts!

If I had to pick one position that I endorse, it would be Cordesman's

Posted by: roublen vesseau | Aug 19, 2005 2:01:53 AM

The End of Iraq

I will post it again. Although many also consider Stirling Newberry a crank.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Aug 19, 2005 2:37:47 AM

I sometimes find Newberry unpersuasive, but McManus' link to Newberry above contains some very hardheaded realism. I don't mean to incite a realism vs. idealism debate here, but sometimes only realism will do when times are dire. Vietnam in 1966-68 was one of those times when brutal realism should have been in order. We weren't able to face that then. That should be a lesson here.

Newberry: For those who've been in, or to, a failed state, it is a condition to be avoided with every resource and every effort available. Because without stability there is no peace, and without peace, there will be no prosperity. Failure to secure the Middle East now will assure that in the future the US will be forced to reinvade Iraq when it disintegrates, or threatens to.

The threat of disintegration is very real. Can the US accept that? We will know a lot more during 2006 about the character of that threat. We cannot know that now.

I also agree with Newberry that until Bush is gone and the Congress changes hands, smart, hardheaded realism about Iraq has a very low probability of happening.

If you accept that BushCo controls events without significant hindrance by the Congress or US people, then the question of 'withdraw' or 'stay' is almost moot until 2009 - unless BushCo finds a way to declare victory and withdraw. Even a remnant army of 30-50,000 US troops cannot likely prevent Iraq from going whichever way it will go - yet to be determined.

A realist also must accept that no other powers (or the UN) have the will or capacity to take on a major portion of the burden of maintaining some kind of stability in Iraq.

My bottom line: there doesn't appear to be either a stay or leave scenario (mid-term, under BushCo) that will have a higher chance of influencing the Iraqi outcome toward unity and stability. Bush is likely to do a partial withdrawal during 2006 and 2007, for domestic reasons, not because of conditions allow for that in Iraq. Would Bush try to suppress a civil war?

Finally, in response to Ezra's desire to make real proposals for doing something helpful by staying the course, the only thing that makes sense to increase the probability of unity and stability in Iraq would be a dramatic increase (50-100%) in US forces as soon as we could make that happen. This would be comparable to the total national mobilization that the US conducted in 1942-43, and would require major changes in political and social life here in the US. Bush probably doesn't have the credibility to make that happen, but it might work if he could.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Aug 19, 2005 3:43:00 AM

Dan Darling

Roublen provided good links, although I read this Darling/Martin dialogue earlier this week, thanks to a tip from praktike of LAT over at Obsidian Wings.

I hope everyone reads the comments on posts, there are some very good ones, excluding me.

"I honestly don't know and that worries me. Absent the political willingness to deploy conventional military forces in the Middle East, however, it is not altogether unreasonable to suggest that at some future date the US might retaliate with weapons of mass destruction in some fashion in response to a future terrorist incident. I don't consider that to be an ideal future by any means, but I do feel that the likelihood of it occurring increases by a factor of ten if the US ditches Iraq out of domestic political considerations." ...Darling

I don't necessarily agree with Newberry on everything. My impression from reading his earlier posts is that the withdrawal from Iraq will result in an economic meltdown in America, based on loss of confidence in a secure oil supply, a precipitous decline in the dollar and asset prices, and a decline in stimulative defense spending.

This will be accompanied by a further political lurch to the right in an America of scarcity. He considers this inevitable, a much weaker poorer more conservative America, and I think he is trying to build the post-cataclysmic structures. Because the current liberal establishment has not really laid the groundwork for resistance.

I think that recession/depression and total Republican dominance can be avoided, but only with a Democratic Party willing to fight the war and call for massive tax increases on the rich. You are not getting one without the other.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Aug 19, 2005 5:17:48 AM

To put succinctly what others have said more elaborately:

We may only pull out in good conscience when the Iraqi government is capable of standing on its own, or else when its fall is inevitable regardless of our presence.

To pull out before either of these conditions is met would be to condemn Iraq to true anarchy.

As an aside, the justice of the invasion itself is immaterial to this question. There is a clear distinction between Jus ad Bellum (justice of war) on the one hand, and Jus in Bello (justice in war) on the other, which has been thouroughly dealt with since Augustine at least.

Posted by: Mastiff | Aug 19, 2005 5:57:08 AM

Note that I believe the war was just to begin with. But it's water under the bridge now.

Posted by: Mastiff | Aug 19, 2005 6:05:51 AM

Hey Ezra,

I wanted to thank you for your recent posts on rethinking Iraq. Reading them has forced me to rethink a lot of my positions. I have read some of the links and I especially liked the cover piece of the American Prospect and even more, the long piece in The Nation. I think I am going to write about this topic, and how it relates more specifically to Israel and my own experiences, on my blog.

-Dave W

Posted by: Dave | Aug 19, 2005 7:22:36 AM

Well I don't see a bunch of cogent scenarios for success from war supporters here, Ezra's challenge seems to have fallen on barren ground.

This war started with the premise that Saddam and Iraq were a fundamental threat to America and the ground rules reflected that. Force protection was everything and everyone and everything that possibly could be a threat to US troops was open season. Hundreds and hundreds of incidents of innocent civilians being killed because of misperceptions were simply waved away with "don't you remember 9/11" and "WMD". Tactics that were explainable, if never justifiable, when America seemed to be at risk are simply unexplainable and still unjustifiable now. Getting too close to an American convoy is a death penalty offense in Iraq. That is just wrong but at this point irreversible - because the answer is not just stand there and let suicide bombers blow you up.

You just can't reconcile the past and current tactics of troops in Iraq with the goal of Democracy building. "We are here to build a Democratic Iraq but if you come within 200 yards you are subject to be shot without warning" is just not a viable message and putting another 100,000 troops in country under the same ground rules won't accomplish anything.

The problem with the Pottery Barn "You broke it, you bought it" rule is that the only tool war supporters have for cleanup is a bigger bulldozer. When you are deep in a hole the answer is not a better shinier new shovel.

We lost this war back when we were winning it. We lost it when the first minivan full of kids was shot up and people waved it off. We went to war with a set of ground rules that are just not suitable to today's proclaimed goal and there is no way to reconcile that.

Posted by: Bruce Webb | Aug 19, 2005 7:47:55 AM

Was Bob's list a list of conditions for withdrawal? If so, then we will never leave.

1) At what point in the near future can the Western or world economies easily handle a sustained (months) 10-20% or more decrease in oil supply and distribution?

2) At what point can we feel secure there is no organization planning and with the resources to stage one or more 9/11 level events?

3) At what point can we feel secure that the Middle Eastern economies and polities are sustainable with the end of oil production?

4) At what point are we secure that worldwide proselytizing Islam is pluralistic, liberal and tolerant without a radical violent fringe?

Number one implies a wait until western economies have converted to transportation systems that don't run on oil derived fuel. A very long time, I'm afraid.

Number two is doable, but I fail to see why an organization in, say, Pakistan should cause us to stay in Iraq...

Number three, waiting for a desert country whose only resource is oil to develop a sustainable, non-oil related economy is probably going to be an infinite wait. Can anyone think of any examples of a desert nation like Saudi Arabia or Kuwait having a sustainable, non-oil based economy?

As for number four, we're still waiting for that condition to be met regarding Christianity and Judaism, as well. In fact, there will always be a lunatic fringe in every society and to suggest that the elimination of such a fringe is a pre-condition for any particular action is to say that said action will never occur.

In the end, Bob's prescription is, apparently, a permanent occupation of Iraq. Thanks, Bob.

Posted by: exgop | Aug 19, 2005 9:20:08 AM

Got here late in this conversation. I think Bob has pretty much said it all. Those camped out in Crawford have not mentioned a "conditional" or "gradual" withdrawal from Iraq. They have signs saying "Get out NOW!".

Posted by: Fred Jones | Aug 19, 2005 9:41:53 AM

FWIW (nothing, really: I'm not an expert -- and even those who are know there isn't an easy answer to this):

Honestly, my answer is this: a viable government which polices its own area and ensures that terrorism doesn't breed -- and doesn't pose an Afgan-like vaccum that poses a greater threat to our national security than Saddam. Does the appearance of 140K US troops cause more terrorism than it prevents? I don't know -- no one does -- but we do know that terrorism thrives in a vaccum and the US forces appear to be the only possible stabilizing force there.

We're not there yet. We're not even close. Until that happens, it is folly to think withdraw is imminent. Believe it or not, we're the only folks currently keeping "Iraq" together.

PS: My condition for withdrawl does not include democracy (I'm defining expectations down: I just want security), but it might presuppose partition w/UN peackeepers (it leads us closer to security -- a Shiite govt. is more likely to effectively police Shiite areas, etc...).

PPS: Didn't support the war, don't like it -- opposed it precisely b/c of the dillema we're now in.

Posted by: Chris R | Aug 19, 2005 10:34:48 AM

Dave at Seeing the Forest says this: "My 'position' on Iraq is that we should send as many troops as is needed to restore order, allow them to develop a stable government and rebuild the infrastructure of Iraq. That is my position. This would require a draft, and taxes sufficient to pay for the effort (incuding reconstructing Iraq.) If we instead ask the UN to take over, we should be the ones who pay for their forces and the reconstruction. I know it will never happen [emphasis in original], but this is the legal, moral and responsible thing to do."

What say ye?

Posted by: Lex | Aug 19, 2005 11:24:35 AM

I am against withdrawing now for a variety of reasons, but the main one is simple: While Bush is in charge it is a dangerous policy.

What will prevent Bush and his greedy, war mongering backers from picking up the troops returning from Iraq and sending them to Iran ?

All we would be doing is freeing resources for another war, a war that is already being peddled by this gang of nuts in the WH.

You can see a discussion of adittional reasons here:

Posted by: lawnorder | Aug 19, 2005 11:29:52 AM

Ezra - I think we should stay. I opposed going in, but now that we're there, I think that withdrawing will result in the same dynamic we saw in Afghanistan after 1989 - a brutal civil war followed by a period of disintegration into a failed state and a power vacuum.

I would define success - or at least a point at which we could legitimately withdraw - using the following criteria:
(a) the existence of a well-trained indiginous army capable of both respecting civil rights and maintaining order after the withdrawal;
(b) the existence of either (i) a popular consensus within Iraq supporting the established form of government, or (ii) a division of Iraq into multiple autonomous regions each with popular support within the region.

Posted by: aphrael | Aug 19, 2005 11:34:28 AM

All anyone who supports sticking around in Iraq always brings up this viable government.

What is that? When is a government viable. By definition viable means alive or willing to live all on its own.

How do you guage that with over 130,000 american troops inside? What is the test that says, ok their viable now, let's go home.

Is there an exam or a checklist? Because honestly do you think that they would make a constitution without us forcing them to? Do you think they would hold their own elections without us being there? Do you think that future elections could take place without American troops there?

these are all questions that Ezra failed to ask.

Here is a solution. Bush should ride into Iraq on a Nuke aimed at the Sunnis Strangelove style. Screw it, he already is the poster boy for Iraqi blood, so let him die with the lot of the Sunni insurgents that just dont want to get along with the others.

That ought to stop the violence and end a generation of haters right? Look how effective Hiroshima was! WE never heard so much as a peep from the Japanese once we dropped that Fat man and Little boy on them! I mean perhaps that is what needs to be done!

If we nuked Muslims they would bow down in fear. And if we taped Bush to the bomb itself they would no longer have an anti-christ american to paint a target on.

Anyone ascribing to this pullout stratergy?

(disclaimer: the above is sarcasm. please treat it as such.)

Posted by: media in trouble | Aug 19, 2005 11:34:53 AM

My homepage link points to a discussion on the pros / cons of withdrawing. It has quite a bit of comments and details, but here is the summary

Withdrawing now would be a disaster:
No-brainer reasons

1. War on Terror: Withdrawing would signal defeat and prove Osama's attacks work.
2. Homeland security: A civil war would result and that would make Iraq even more of a breeding ground for terror.
3. Economical: Withdrawing would leave behind all the hopes of US ever being paid for the $200 billion invested on the war.
4. Humanitarian: Withdrawing now would result in a civil war that could claim millions of victims (even if there is no civil war, Iraqi civilians will be definitely worse if we leave now. They can't go to the streets and fear sending their kids to school because of the lawlessness there. Even without civil war the lawlessness will get much worse before it gets better. As for US we would still be worse of IMHO. Even without civil war, relaxed border controls, lawlessnes, smuggling, looting of weapons sites and black market weapon sales will increase a lot when Americans leave. And that will give terrorists a cheap cache of weapons to use against US)
5. Emotional: All the pain and sacrifice endured by the military and their families would have been for naught

Other reasons (here you may or may not agree with me)

6. Middle East Foreign Policy: It would leave Israel and other US friendly Middle Eastern vulnerable to attacks and "spill over" civil war
7. Rest of the World Policy: It would leave the country leaders of US friendly "coalition of the (b)willing" in a very difficult situation
8. US Politics - GOP: Believe it or not, IMHO, withdrawal would be good for the GOP, as it would remove the pain the war is inflicting on average Americans. And just like Vietnam with Nixon, the GOP will be able to reap the political benefits of stopping the war
9. US Politics - War critics: It would leave war critics vulnerable to election defeat vulnerable to be used by escape goats by the GOP - just like Kerry and the anti-war movement was blamed for the Vietnam fiasco: The Tinkerbell defense - Liberals didn't clap loud enough and that is the reason the war failed.
10. US Politics - DNC: It would leave those who signed the War resolution and the Dem hawks (like Hillary) vulnerable to election defeat. Because they would be dammed by what they did - support the war in the beginning - and dammed by what they didn't do: Stop the war criticism on their own party. And it would be even worse for the flip floppers...
11. US as a "Hit and Run" driver: The image we will get in the world at large, is of a "hit and run" driver who wounded the victim and left before the victim was strong enough to call for help herself
12. Flypaper strategy abandoned: Are we going to fight "over here" now ?
13. Cheney hawks: Withdrawing would clear Iraq from Americans, giving them added incentive to nuke Iraq and/or Iran
14. China or Russia CAN NOT "adopt" Iraq if we stay we can prevent Putin or China from getting their mitts on Iraq's big fat Oil reserves

Posted by: lawnorder | Aug 19, 2005 11:48:43 AM

Media in Trouble - you have a good point about the difficulty in determining the viability of a government which currently relies on outside help.

I don't think they would have made a constitution or held elections without us there; but I do think that, if we stay long enough for that to be the accepted and normal state of affairs, they will continue to do so after we leave. But that might be a generation-long commitment.

Posted by: aphrael | Aug 19, 2005 11:56:01 AM

Is there an exam or a checklist (for a viable local government)?

Why yes:
- Efficient local Border patrol: So that no one smuggles weapons from Al QaQaa and other places out of Iraq
- Efficient police and intelligence: So that terrorists don't make Iraq the new Taliban
- Security for local people and foreigners is at acceptable levels: So that we avoid a genocide and that NGOs and aid organizations can help Iraq get back on it's feet.
- Human Rights at acceptable levels: I don't know about you but I loose sleep at night knowing that we are bringing back Saddam's mukhbarat police.

But the most important self sufficinet local government we need to get before we can exit Iraq is HERE IN US.

Again, what will prevent Cheney from nuking Iran and /or Iraq if we take the Americans out of there ?

Posted by: lawnorder | Aug 19, 2005 11:57:47 AM

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