Politics First

Why Only U.S. Withdrawal Can Spur Iraqi Cooperation

Stephen Biddle, Michael O'Hanlon, and Kenneth Pollack ("How to Leave a Stable Iraq," September/October 2008) argue that the situation in Iraq has improved but that progress could be jeopardized by withdrawing U.S. troops too rapidly. They propose a policy of strategic patience that would delay major troop withdrawals for several years, until after the next round of Iraqi provincial and national elections. Although Biddle, O'Hanlon, and Pollack are right about the tenuous but real security gains in Iraq, they are wrong about the effects this military progress has had on the political realm and about the likely consequences of their recommendation. Their approach would almost certainly mean that troops would remain at high levels for far longer than they suggest, because the kind of political progress they anticipate -- and which would, they argue, allow U.S. troops to withdraw from an Iraq that has achieved "sustained stability" -- will likely not materialize.

The problem lies in the fundamentally flawed belief that providing more security is the key to achieving political compromise. Restoring basic levels of security from the low point of 2006 was indeed essential. But now, contrary to what the authors argue, improved security is making the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki less likely to make meaningful compromises, since Maliki currently sees little downside to not doing so. The Iraqi government simply does not share American assessments of the negative consequences that would result from failing to achieve reconciliation. And as long as the U.S. military protects Iraqi leaders from the consequences of their choices, they are probably correct. Ironically, their feeling of security has led them to insist that a security agreement with the United States include a commitment to withdraw combat troops by the end of 2011, likely rendering the policy Biddle, O'Hanlon, and Pollack advocate no longer viable.

Today, a credible commitment to a more rapid withdrawal, which the authors view as a potential disaster, is more likely to facilitate Iraqi political accommodation than to endanger it. There are no guarantees, of course. Iraq is currently a house of cards, with a plethora of unresolved issues of contention threatening to undermine stability at any moment. But a carefully managed, responsible drawdown of U.S. forces is more likely to produce meaningful political accommodation than is an endless store of strategic patience.

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