I understand the logic of trying to consolidate the security gains in Iraq, but we still have no answer to Gen. Petraeus’s famous query: “Tell me how this ends.” In fact, the general said yesterday, “We haven’t turned any corners. We haven’t seen any lights at the end of the tunnel.” Phil is right that Iraq’s political problems can’t be solved easily and things won’t necessarily improve — or align with our national security interests — if we leave. But what if they can’t be solved by outside actors and things don’t improve if we stay?
Although we are engaged in battles against deadly foes like al Qaeda in Iraq, most of what we are doing there is far removed from the original reasons we went into Iraq. We are trying to deal with many of the consequences — ethnic rivalries, an increased Islamist presence, enlarged Iranian influence — that gave some of us pause about the intervention in the first place. Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy has succeded militarily but the surge is ending with more of the onus placed on the Iraqis themselves.
What next? At some point, we have to quantify how much of our finite military resources we are willing to spend in pursuit of a goal — the creation of an Iraqi government that is capable of actually governing, not hostile to the United States, and not unduly influenced by terrorist groups or state sponsors of terrorism — that may not be achievable in full. John McCain’s “100 years” comment may frequently be taken out of context. But the question of how many years — and how many troops — he is willing to give this project is a valid one for the electorate to ask.