Along the Tracks

Sunday, November 27, 2005

A response to 'cut-and-run'

As I mentioned in a post below, I spent some time Saturday catching up on the reading I'd missed over a busy Thanksgiving week. Among the items I found (this one courtesy of Mickey Kaus) was a piece by retired Gen. William Odom, former head of the NSA under Reagan. Odom argues Iraq will fall apart whenever we leave, so why not leave now? Read it for yourself. Meanwhile, I found I could not keep from commenting on his article. I have also posted the comment below:

Odom’s argument is … just bizarre.

The goal of the invasion of Iraq, though muddled by the entire U.N. process, was not merely to take away Saddam’s weapons. The goal was to remove Iraq as a present and growing threat to the United States, its allies and its interests. Saddam was a threat whether he had the weapon stockpiles or not, because he had the technology and the expressed and historic desire to use them. Saddam was a threat whether he had the “operational” al Qaeda links or not because he had expressed interest in such links and was harboring various terrorists and their networks (such as Ansar al-Islam and al Qaeda’s Zarqawi). Saddam was a threat because he had twisted the U.N. Oil for Food program into a secure source of funds which could be used to threaten the United States, with which he was in a continued low-level war ever since Desert Storm.

People can (and did) argue whether or not that threat was sufficient to justify an invasion, but in the fall of 2002, 77 U.S. senators voted that it was, and 15 U.N. Security Council members implied so with their “serious consequences” resolution.

We invaded and Saddam was toppled. Since then, we have battled to secure the war’s goal: Removal of Iraq as a present and growing threat.

All this being said, we must look at today’s situation in Iraq and decide whether the goal has been met and no longer requires the U.S. presence.

While Saddam is now under lock and key, and the Iraqi government is not a threat to the U.S. or its interests, the continuing influx of jihadists and attacks by Zarqawi’s network clearly indicate the terror threat remains. Our exit would allow those terrorists to change their focus from internal mayhem to external attacks on the United States and its allies. Without our presence in Iraq, the threat to American interests at home and overseas grows.

Until the Iraqi government is politically stable, there remains the danger of an insurgent takeover, either by former Baathists or by al Qaeda. Either could tap into the knowledge base of Iraqi scientists and resume work on chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. Again, achievement of the war’s goal slips out of our grasp with premature exit.

Odom’s call for withdrawal is based on an extremely pessimistic view of both the current situation in Iraq and the capabilities of the Iraqi people, who seem to be either denigrated or ignored by most who call for immediate “cut-and-run.” Once governmental institutions like courts, councils, boards, departments and ministries have established themselves as the legitimate power structure with the Iraqi people – a process well underway – the need for the U.S. military as the ultimate source of authority in Iraq will evaporate.

Along the same lines, once Iraqi security forces can control common street crime, shut out the influx of foreign militants and break up the networks of internal terrorists, U.S. forces will recede to the background – although some level of backup force capability will undoubtedly be necessary for years to come. The political model being followed in Iraq is fundamentally different than that of Vietnam, something rarely noted: In Iraq, the democratic political process has preceded the building, training and equipping of the military, while in Vietnam, the opposite was true. Vietnam’s internal politics were driven by the military’s power, while any observer can see Iraq’s fledgling democracy is already considered legitimate by the vast majority of Iraqis who are demonstrating this by voting. Whether intentional or not, the Iraqi military’s slow progress may eventually be seen as a key ingredient in setting up democratically-based authority.

If the reason for invading Iraq was to protect the United States from the threats posed by that country, and the continued presence of U.S. troops in Iraq – though painful and costly – is maintaining a reduced level of threat from Iraq, then Odom’s argument can be turned on its head: Why not stick it out in Iraq indefinitely to keep the threat against the homeland and overseas interests substantially reduced from that of Saddam’s era?

The loss of American lives and the monetary costs both argue against this as a long-term plan – thus, the effort to build a stable democracy. However, success in even five or 10 years would still be better than “indefinitely” and, most crucial, would still succeed in securing the war’s ultimate goal. A determination to succeed rather than to give up and pull out prematurely also increases pressure on the Iraqis to hasten their progress toward stability, and our exit with it.

Finally, U.S. politicians should never commit forces to combat unless they believe the threat meets that grave decision. Their vote – or in the case of the executive, the order – should not be seen as a one-off choice easily cast aside when no longer expedient, but a solemn acceptance of responsibility until the goals are secured.

In Iraq today, we aren’t there yet. That’s why we can’t leave.

UPDATE: In responding to an entirely different article and arguments (by Joe Biden in the Washington Post), Ed Morrissey at Captain's Quarters makes a very similar response as mine to Odom.

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