Of all the arguments offered by critics of the Iraq War, there are two that strike me as particularly problematic. The first one is the idea that the only way to get Iraqis to make progress on their own is to force their hand by setting a timetable for withdrawal. While war critics will point to the chaos in the Iraqi government, the corruption, the ethnic rivalries, and the inadequacy of their military on the one hand, on the other hand, we’re supposed to believe that all of this will improve once we withdraw. This assumes, however, that the difficulty Iraqis have in stabilizing their own country is merely a matter of will. But Iraq’s political problems that are arising from a mix of ethnic/sectarian divisions, the natural difficulty of emerging from having spent decades under a brutal dictator, and the real challenges posed by rebuilding a military from scratch within a warzone are much more complex than that. What’s more, the sooner the Iraqis know that we’re going to leave, the more likely it is that al-Maliki will move closer to Iran.
The other argument that’s been bothering me has become popular on the blogs and was expressed by Ted Kennedy this way: “A year ago, the president said we couldn’t withdraw because there was too much violence. Now he says we can’t afford to withdraw because violence is down.” The idea, of course, is that those who support the war effort want to be in Iraq forever, and will argue for continuing a large troop presence no matter what the situation on the ground. But it is a gross distortion of the actual arguments made by supporters of the war. The idea is not that the U.S. has to stay there because violence is down, but that we have to stay to consolidate our progress because violence could very easily spike up were we to leave prematurely. As Gen. Petraeus has been arguing repeatedly, we have made significant security gains in Iraq, but they are “fragile and reversible.” So, nobody is arguing that we have to stay in because violence is down. In fact, it’s evidence that the administration actually learned something from its “Mission Accomplished”/”last throes” mistakes of the past by acknowledging that even after steady progress, violence can easily flare up again. The hope is that we can keep reducing violence to manageable levels while we train the Iraq military until they reach the point where they can handle a reduced level of violence on their own. Whatever you may thing of how achievable that goal is, it certainly isn’t an argument that we can’t leave Iraq because there is too little violence.