Withdrawal Is Victory
Yesterday’s Pentagon briefing featured a telling exchange about Iraq between a reporter (whom I think was McClatchy’s Nancy Youssef) and spokesman Geoff Morrell. If the United States is on pace to withdraw from Iraq, the reporter wanted to know, wasn’t the United States declaring victory? Morrell came up with a couple of unsatisfying evasions — “there still is a threat that remains,” the Iraqis have “asked for our assistance” until 2011, etc. — and so the reporter persisted. Finally, Morrell sensibly leveled. “Frankly, I don’t think anybody’s too preoccupied with declaring victory,” he said. “I don’t think that was — necessarily something we’ll ever do.”
And that’s the mark of a sensible policymaker. For the United States., victory is a category error in a war like Iraq. The goal is to mitigate the fundamental errors of invasion and occupation by leaving the country in the hands of a reasonably capable Iraqi government. If there is a victory to be had, it’s to be had by that government, when it finds a way to either defeat, co-opt or marginalize the rejectionists challenging its authority.
Or maybe another way. According to The New York Times, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is portraying the June 30 departure of U.S. combat troops from Iraqi towns and cities as a “great victory,” ahead of the forthcoming national elections. Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, contended to Maliki that the prime minister should allow a limited U.S. combat presence in violent northern cities like Mosul. Maliki rejected the argument. His efforts are designed to cast himself as the man who ended the occupation of Iraq, in line with his years-long strategy of consolidating power within his office.
“We will not ask them to intervene in combat operations related to maintaining public order,” he said in an interview with Le Monde published last week. “It is finished.”
Sure, as of next week, 130,000 U.S. troops will still be in Iraq as an insurance policy, training and equipping the Iraqi security forces for missions like emergency medical evacuation, and with their helicopters flying in the skies for if things get gnarly. But that’s less important than the political dynamic that Maliki’s strategy reinforces, which is that there’s a dividend to be reaped by the leader who evicts the United States from Iraq. And while that may hurt American feelings, it gets the U.S. everything its interests require: out of Iraq, while a reliable-enough U.S. ally increases his hold on power. As a mitigation strategy, it works fairly well. Unsurprisingly, U.S. military leaders embrace it. Here’s military spokesman Stephen Lanza, a one-star general:
“Symbolically,” General Lanza said of the withdrawing American forces ahead of Tuesday, “this is what we want for the Iraqis as a sovereign nation.”