Monday, October 02, 2006

What’s wrong with cutting and running

As this Congressional campaign season has heated up, the term “cutting and running” increasingly has been applied in one fashion or another to the Iraq war. Typically, it is used by Republicans to claim that that is what Democrats want, and by Democrats to deny the charge (See, for example, this GOP link, which attempts to link Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) with “cutting and running” on practically everything.) While the term is itself derogatory (after all, few will admit they are in favor of “cutting and running,” even those in favor of a unilateral and immediate withdrawal from Iraq), all derogatory terms need a little parsing. Without parsing, we condemn our political debates to vocabulary contests, with our choices determined by which side manages to think up the most pleasant- or horrible-sounding euphemism for the question at hand.

For the purposes of this post, I’ll define cutting and running as withdrawing US troops from Iraq under Vietnam-like conditions — in other words, under conditions where it’s pretty clear we haven’t won. In reality, I think there are other “cutting and running” scenarios that don’t necessarily entail a complete withdrawal of US troops, but we’ll get into that later. So, what issues does cutting and running involve? This is an important issue because, regardless of what you think about the initial decision to invade Iraq, whether intelligence about Iraqi WMDs were exaggerated or even fabricated, whether Iraq is central to the War on Terror or just an unnecessary sideshow, it seems pretty clear (to me, at least) that the White House did not have a “Plan B” in place for Iraq if the occupation of the country ran into trouble. This is both surprising and not surprising. It’s surprising because many of the insurgency problems we are now facing in Iraq are precisely those that led George H.W. Bush to not invade and occupy the country during the first Gulf War. It is not surprising because quite a few major military plans of the past — from the Athenians at Salamis to the German Schlieffen Plan — have failed to have an effective backup in case things don’t work out.

At this point, of course, it’s not just the Republicans who seem to not have a Plan B. Recently, Ned Lamont, who is advocating pretty much as close to a cut and run idea as is out there, admitted that he doesn’t really have a clear idea of what the likely outcome for the Middle East would be if the U.S. pulled out of Iraq (“I think we now have a lot of lousy choices,” was his response.)

Staying the course

“Stay the course,” as has been the Bush Administration’s line until recently. (This has recently been changed to “adapt to win” — which, frankly, I find a little disconcerting, since if it has taken the White House three years to figure out Helmuth von Moltke’s maxim that no plan survives the first five minutes of encounter with the enemy, then the Bush Administration rapidity in adapting environmental change puts in on par with the Giant Panda.) That said, staying the course is, effectively, a strategy of attrition. It is predicated on the idea that we can sustain our losses for longer than the Iraqi/Jihadist insurgents can sustain theirs. This is, to put it very gently, a highly risky strategy. This week’s leaked release of a National Intelligence Estimate on global terrorism trends claims that the war in Iraq is not going well, galvanizing the Jihadist movement in such a way that the Iraqi insurgency shows no sign of weakening, despite continued US military pressure.

Ironically, little that has been publicly disclosed about this leaked top secret reports says much that everyone doesn’t already know. The continued strength of the Iraqi insurgency is hardly surprising, given that it is not just Iraqis who want to see the insurgency continue. It is also pretty much everyone else in the region as well, and perhaps even beyond the Middle East. So long as the United States is involved in Iraq, it has far less capability and willingness to become involved in other global hotspots. Consequently, we can expect that even the Chinese, North Koreans and Russians have a desire to see the Iraqi insurgency survive, and we can expect that the Syrians and Iranians, at a minimum, will provide assistance to the insurgents.

Foreign incentives also underscore the difficulties the United States faces in building an Iraqi political consensus that might lead to peace. The Syrians, Iranians, and even the Turks have a strong motivation to stir the pot. The Syrians have no desire to see a strong Iraq, since Iraq has traditionally been at odds with Syria and a competitor for power within the Arab world; a conflict-torn Iraq greatly strengthens Iran’s position in the region; and Turkey can be expected to oppose anything that furthers Kurdish autonomy. By contrast, a peaceful Iraq (and a strengthened America resulting from such peace) is a grave threat to both Syria and Iran. Other regional players also have their own incentives to undermine any internal Iraqi political solution. Much of the Sunni Arab world — including Saudi Arabia and even Jordan — has no desire to see Iraq become a client state of Iran, which is what they see happening if Iraq’s Shi’ites dominate the country. Given Iraq’s long and porous borders, this means that the Iraqi insurgency likely will not lack for weapons, ammunition, logistical support, or even foreign volunteers.

It also means that Iraq’s various political parties, impoverished and threatened by partisan violence as they are, are vulnerable to outside political influence. Iraq’s Sunni minority instigated this fight, but will come under increasing pressure from as Shi’ite Iraqi death squads seek retaliation. The money, weapons and protection covertly offered these Sunni groups by Syria, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states will come with a price, and we can expect that price to include continued violent opposition to the American military presence. Iran, who is offering similar support to Shi’ite groups (and, rumor has it, Sunni groups as well), can be expected to encourage Iraqi Shi’ites to insist on nothing less than total political domination of the country. This is not an environment conducive to an American attrition strategy.

Plan B?

In the world of Plan B’s, retreat is always an option (and sometimes the only option). But what would a complete American withdrawal (or a “timetable”, as it’s sometimes called) entail?

If the United States were to unilaterally withdraw from Iraq under current conditions, we can expect several possible outcomes. Full-fledged civil war in Iraq clearly is the most obvious. The current situation in Iraq is a civil war, but without American involvement, the intensity of the Sunni-Shi’ite conflict would increase geometrically. The massacres of dozens and hundreds that now occur in Iraq would soon involve thousands. Rather than car bombs, we can expect that the Sunni and Shi’ite sides would graduate to artillery and rocket attacks on entire neighborhoods. Without American soldiers able to dominate any overt military activity, neither side would feel obligated to rely on furtive terrorist suicide and remote car bomb attacks — and, indeed, such attacks would be more difficult, since, without an American presence stopping them, both sides (as well as the Kurds) can be expected to engage in a degree of “ethnic cleansing” of neighborhoods, to ensure that car bombs and similar terrorist attacks are harder to perpetrate. Civilian Iraqi casualties from such a civil war will run in the tens of thousands, and perhaps even the hundreds of thousands before the course of the conflict has run.

While it is possible that the warring factions in Iraq will see the danger that faces them as the US withdraws (and this withdrawal might therefore force them to the negotiating table), this scenario seems less likely because outside forces will push for war. Iraq’s neighbors will not silently watch this drama unfold. Sunni/Wahhabi jihadists (many of them foreign) will continue a terror campaign against Iraq’s Shi’ite communities in order to forestall a Shi’ite-dominated Iraq. Iran, by contrast, will see an Iraqi civil war (and the absence of American troops) as their single greatest opportunity to dominate the region, and they will lend their full support behind the Shi’ite Iraqi side. Iraq has been Iran’s most significant regional enemy, even before the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, and even though the majority of Iraq’s citizens are members of the same Muslim denomination as the Iranians (Shia’ism), the ethnic divide should not be underestimated. Iran will prefer to see a unified Iraq under Iranian control, but they will prefer to see a divided Iraq over a unified, but independent country. We can also expect that the Sunni Arab states will recognize this Iranian opportunity for what it is, and will use their wealth and military resources to help ensure that Iran does not achieve its goal — even if that means supporting jihadists. At a minimum, this will mean that, absent US troops, a full-scale Iraqi civil war will be very difficult to avert, and likely will be extremely bloody. In a worst-case scenario, an Iraqi civil war could spark an all-out war between Iran and the Sunni Arab states of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Syria and even Egypt.

Plan B.1

An alternative to a complete withdrawal of US forces with be a substantial withdrawal, but with a sizable remainder of US troops based inside of Iraq at relatively inaccessible desert bases, or in Iraqi Kurdistan. Such a partial withdrawal could reduce the American footprint within Iraq and make US troops less of a target to insurgents. To be effective at limiting US casualties, of course, the American footprint would have to be reduced to the point that US troops could not prevent a full-scale Iraqi civil war, and the attending massacres and ethnic cleansing. Their presence, however, would be sufficient to deter direct outside intervention, such as an invasion by Iran (or, for that matter, Turkey). Clearly, however, this presence would not be sufficient to prevent indirect outside intervention, such as weapons transfers and logistical support to the Iraqi combatants.

Consequences for the United States

Clearly, either a complete or a partial withdrawal of US troops from Iraq will have strategic consequences for the United States. Some of these may be good, while others likely will be deeply problematic.

US credibility

Opponents of a withdrawal frequently point out the downside. The first is the damage to US credibility. Under this view, “cutting and running” will embolden America’s enemies and dishearten America’s allies. The United States will be viewed as weak and unwilling to use force, with adverse effects on America’s ability to deter other countries from engaging in military adventures that run against US interests. China may question US resolve to protect Taiwan, North Korea may be encouraged to provoke South Korea and Japan, and Iran may be less willing to negotiate away its nuclear ambitions.

Critics of this view will point out that deterrence and credibility are better achieved through actual, projectable power than through empty displays of “intestinal fortitude.” (See, for example, Lt. Gen. William E. Odom’s article, “Cut and Run? You Bet” in Foreign Policy.) Removing US troops from Iraq will increase the United States’ ability to project force in other regions of the world. (Counter-critics of this view will point out that deterring China and North Korea is primarily the job of the US Navy and Air Force, neither of which currently are greatly burdened by Iraq.) Nonetheless, basing deterrence and credibility entirely on ability and ignoring the psychological aspects seems to ignore history. For example, while Odom writes that “…[t]he same argument was made against withdrawal from Vietnam. It was proved wrong then and it would be proved wrong today,” he ignores that many other countries — particularly Iraq in 1990 and Iran in 1979 — did indeed draw from the Vietnam experience the idea that the United States was unwilling to commit itself to a war. It was not until the first Gulf War that US credibility, in that regard, was fully restored.

However, this points to another problem. The credibility and deterrence that the US built up after the first Gulf War (and, again, in Kosovo and immediately after the invasion of Iraq) arguably has dissipated as a result of the current conflict. The idea that the United States can be beaten through “asymmetric warfare” has gained considerable credence, particularly with Iran and China. Consequently, there may not be much credibility left for the United States to lose in a withdrawal from Iraq.

International opinion and influence

Even if much of the world currently condemns the US invasion of Iraq, we can fully expect that international condemnation will increase if the United States was to withdraw and a full-scale civil war erupted. Colin Powell’s words that “if you break it, you buy it” will be read on the editorial pages of newspapers around the world, and the US will be blamed for any massacres or ethnic cleansings. This charge will ring even more strongly if the US withdrawal is only partial and American troops are still located nearby. Indeed, the pressure to redeploy these forces to stop any massacres may be enormous.


If the United States disengages from Iraq and a full-scale civil war erupts, there is a risk this will expand beyond Iraq’s borders. On one hand, this may actually increase US influence in the region, as some Sunni Arab governments seek US help in fending off Iran’s power. On the other hand, this may further radicalize some Sunni Arabs. Even as Arabs throughout the Middle East celebrate in the streets over a great “victory” against the United States, it will only be a short time before conspiracy theorists spring up claiming that a dramatic US withdrawal is part of a diabolical plan to pit Muslims against Muslims and divide up the region. Any support the United States offers its traditional regional allies (Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt) will be seen as confirmation of this plot.

This, in turn, may have a serious effect on the war against terrorism if it further radicalizes Sunni Arabs, in both the Middle East and the rest of the world. This seems particularly likely if Iran’s agenda in Iraq proves successful. Iran is a powerful, unified country, with a potent military force vis-à-vis most Sunni Arab states. Absent direct US involvement, it is quite possible that Iran will succeed in either tipping the balance within Iraq in favor of Shi’ite dominance, or else fueling a civil war so severe that Iraq is split into three parts. While Iraq’s Shi’ite Arabs (particularly those closely allied with Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani) likely will oppose Iranian meddling, it is also quite possible that they will be so weakened by war (and divided internally) that they have no choice but to follow the Iranian agenda. If this happens — if Iran “Finlandizes” Iraq — Sunni jihadists will look for a scapegoat. The first scapegoat will be the existing governments in Sunni Arab countries, and the second will be the United States and Europe.


Ned Lamont is right that the United States now has a lot of lousy choices. The problem is that there currently are too many “known unknowns” (to use a Donald Rumseld phrase) for good decision-making to be possible. “Staying the course” is a known known, and a bad one at that. However, the alternatives may be worse. Politically, it is hard for the Bush Administration (or any subsequent Administration, Republican or Democrat) to devote the military resources to Iraq and the Middle East that could force a solution favorable to the United States. There simply are no more soldiers to put on the ground, and a military draft is not an option. At the same time, a complete military withdrawal could easily lead to Iranian domination of the entire Persian Gulf, or possibly even spark a regional war between Iran and various Sunni Arab states. Either situation would be extremely harmful to American interests in the region.

A partial withdrawal of US troops — if feasible (i.e., militarily defensible) — could prevent direct Iranian involvement in Iraq, but it is unlikely to keep Iraq from erupting into a civil war with tens or hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties. Conceivably, the United States could broker a peace by playing the role of “king-maker” (by deploying troops from isolated bases in support of one side or another). However, this may be politically difficult, since it would require that the US support a side that inevitably engages in atrocities. It may also be militarily difficult, if Iran and Syria provide advanced military equipment to the Iraqi combatants.

Lousy choices? No kidding, Ned.

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