Will: Let's get out of Iraq, too

Earlier this week, George Will touched off a firestorm of criticism on the Right when he urged Barack Obama to pull American troops out of Afghanistan.  In tomorrow’s column, already live at Washington Post’s website, Will completes the circle by demanding a withdrawal from Iraq as well:

Since U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq’s cities, two months have passed, and so has the illusion that Iraq is smoothly transitioning to a normality free of sectarian violence. Recently, Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. troops there, “blanched” when The Post’s Greg Jaffe asked him if the war is “functionally over.” Odierno said:

“There are still civilians being killed in Iraq. We still have people that are attempting to attack the new Iraqi order and the move towards democracy and a more open economy. So we still have some work to do.”

No, we don’t, even if, as Jaffe reports, the presence of 130,000 U.S. troops “serves as a check on Iraqi military and political leaders’ baser and more sectarian instincts.” After almost 6 1/2 years, and 4,327 American dead and 31,483 wounded, with a war spiraling downward in Afghanistan, it would be indefensible for the U.S. military — overextended and in need of materiel repair and mental recuperation — to loiter in Iraq to improve the instincts of corrupt elites. If there is worse use of the U.S. military than “nation-building,” it is adult supervision and behavior modification of other peoples’ politicians.

More than 725 Iraqis have been killed by terrorism since the June 30 pullback of U.S. forces from the cities. All U.S. combat units are to be withdrawn from the country within a year. Up to 50,000 can remain as “advisers” to an Iraqi government that is ostentatious about its belief that the presence of U.S. forces is superfluous and obnoxious.

Will sets a conundrum for his readers in the final paragraph:

If, in spite of contrary evidence, the U.S. surge permanently dampened sectarian violence, all U.S. forces can come home sooner than the end of 2011. If, however, the surge did not so succeed, U.S. forces must come home sooner.

The gist of Will’s column is that we have failed to fix the corruption and sectarian hostility in Iraq after the surge succeeded in at least calming it down.  Will assumes that any further engagement will not result in improvement.  However, the surge itself was opposed on the same argument, which turned out to be false.  Greater engagement actually solved problems and saved lives.  The problems that Will cites mostly came from our disengagement under the terms of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which many of us worried would be premature.

Will’s argument assumes that we have no real national interest any longer in what happens in and to Iraq.  The Shi’ites are hopelessly aligned with Iran, the Kurds do not share Iraqi nationalism with the rest of the population, and the Sunni remain resentful of their minority status and lack of power.  All of these are real problems, but they aren’t necessarily hopeless.  The engagement strategy launched by George Bush and Robert Gates demonstrated that we can make progress, as long as we take the mission seriously and remain focused on long-term goals, rather than throw our hands up in the air when politicians become corrupt and countries develop minds of their own.

Interestingly, on Afghanistan, Will gets rebutted by that arch-conservative … David Frum:

American and NATO prestige has been pledged to Afghanistan. A collapse of Afghanistan into warlordism or a narco-state (the likeliest outcome of U.S. withdrawal) would be very costly. And the fact that the West has not done very well in Afghanistan to date does not doom us to failure forever. …

Our goals in Afghanistan are properly modest. Nobody is looking to elevate Afghanistan into a model anything. Those who serve in Afghanistan all understand the concept of “good enough.” Next door, Tajikistan is the second poorest country in Eurasia. Yet its population is literate, and it does not host international terrorist groups. Tajikistan is not much of a democracy and it has suffered from civil war, but it has groped its way to stability and it has not been accused of the kinds of human-rights abuses committed in Uzbekistan. We can look to that kind of future for Afghanistan, if we get the military strategy right.

Is the new strategy right? I won’t predict. But it is new, and it deserves a trial before we reach pessimistic conclusions. Wars are ugly and expensive. But losing wars is worse, and worse in ways often impossible to predict in advance. That’s a lesson I learned as a young conservative back in the 1970s—in very large part by reading the columns of George F. Will.

In both theaters, we have to ask ourselves if the US has significant stakes in the outcomes, and in both theaters, we do.  Not even Will disputes that.  Next, we have to ask ourselves if we have the resources and the stamina to see the missions through to the outcomes.  We do, although neither are limitless, nor should they be.  But if we do have significant stakes in the outcomes, especially on national security, then we should have enough stamina to try new strategies and diplomatic initiatives before sounding retreat.

There may come a time when we have tried and failed at every possible way to achieve our mission.  In neither theater has that happened as yet.  Unlike some of Will’s other critics, I have no reason to question his motives, which I assume spring from the highest sense of patriotism and love of country.  That doesn’t make Will correct in his analysis, though, which suffers from a sufficient consideration of the negative consequences of premature retreat, as Frum points out in his answer.