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Diminishing Returns in Iraq

Interviewee: Steven Simon, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
February 7, 2007

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Steven Simon, an expert on Middle East security issues and author of a new Council Special Report on Iraq, says the United States should withdraw its military forces from Iraq by the end of 2008, whether President Bush’s new "surge" policy in Iraq is successful or not.

“If it did succeed, what would be the purpose of a prolonged American presence?” says Simon, who worked on the Clinton administration’s National Security Council staff. “If it succeeded, success implying really an end to a civil war, and therefore the possibility of the creation of a new, truly national multiconfessional Iraqi army, there might be real incentives and some utility to keep American forces in the country for training purposes, to insure that the Iraqi army evolved in a way that worked best for Iraq and for regional security. But apart from that, what purpose would American forces really serve?”

The Council on Foreign Relations has just published a special report written by you called “After the Surge: The Case for U.S. Military Disengagement from Iraq.” The title speaks for itself, but please summarize your thinking on why the United States should begin disengagement from Iraq.

The United States has accomplished all it’s likely to accomplish in Iraq. It’s certainly unseated Saddam Hussein, so that was one objective met. It snuffed out probably for a good long time Iraq’s unrequited quest for weapons of mass destruction, and it’s given Iraqis a shot at pluralistic, democratic government. Those are the achievements. Nothing more is going to be achieved, and every day we stay in Iraq, the higher the price we pay for what we’ve already achieved.

For that reason alone I think it makes sense to depart. Iraq’s problems are fundamentally political, and they’re not going to be resolved by the presence of American forces; indeed, U.S. troop levels have varied between 130,000 and 180,000 over the course of the past three and a half years, and the intensity and the scope of the violence has increased but Iraqis themselves haven’t really yet gotten political traction. There are obviously severe problems, and they are simply not susceptible to the American military cure.

When you consider that we’re losing about one hundred soldiers a month, not to mention contractors, this is a very high price to pay for objectives that are unachievable at this point. I think it is better to leave while we can do it as a volitional act, in an orderly, deliberate, and methodical way, properly coordinated with the Iraqi government, discussed carefully and fully with the governments of surrounding countries, and done in a way so that we can best protect our U.S. interests upon departure. The sooner we start, the sooner we can begin to limit the damage we’re already incurring, and begin to prepare for the postwar environment.

Your report comes out a time when the President’s new policy is about to unfold, in which a stepped-up Iraqi-U.S. military is supposed to crack down hard on both Sunni and Shiite insurgents in and around Baghdad and in Anbar province. Don’t you think it might be worthwhile seeing how that works out before the United Statesdoes anything along the lines you’re suggesting?

It’s important to recognize the report doesn’t talk about any sort of complete, across-the-board disengagement from Iraq. American interests will remain heavily involved in Iraq. We’re just talking about military disengagement. In any case, the report states this process shouldn’t begin until the results of the surge become apparent. The surge at this point is a fait accompli, it’s going to happen one way or another. So it would be really pointless to endorse disengagement that is completely unthinkable under the current circumstances. So let the surge play out. General [David] Petraeus [the new commander of U.S. forces in Iraq] has said the results of the surge will be known very soon.

I guess that’s what I’m getting at: What if the surge is successful?

By that you must mean that the diminished level of violence in Baghdad triggers a process of political cohesion among the Iraqi leaders, which in turn leads to the implementation of a program of genuine national reconciliation. If that happens, well then I presume we can begin to think about military disengagement as well. Indeed, the administration itself has said this. If the surge is successful, the United States can begin to think about drawing down during this calendar year. I’m certainly with the administration on that.

You’re for disengagement whether we lose or win.

Correct. We have reached the point of radically diminishing returns from our military investment.

And you’re talking about a withdrawal over twelve to eighteen months?

Twelve to eighteen months sounds like a reasonable time frame. It’s a practical matter. You can’t withdraw a whole lot faster. Since it’s crucial for the purpose of shaping the narrative of our intervention in Iraq to leave in an orderly and deliberate way, we’re not going to line up all our soldiers on airport ramps, and get them onto cargo planes and haul them out as quickly as possible. We’re not going to leave our armor there, our artillery. We’re not going to leave all of our equipment. We want to make it clear to friend and foe alike that this is not a rout, that the United States is leaving as a matter of deliberate policy and in a systematic way designed to shape the postwar environment. So, given limits on port capacity, on shipping capacity, on the logistical realities of withdrawing 130,000 soldiers from Iraq against the background of these broader objectives, disengagement cannot happen within the next five minutes. It is going to take many months in any case. If you add on the, let’s say, three or four months it will take for the results of the surge to play out, you’re probably looking at a disengagement by the end of 2008, realistically.

Right when the election’s taking place!

Well, as it happens.

Right now, the question of U.S. troops in Iraqis a hot political issue, and it’s obviously going to play out during the campaign because we’ll have new candidates running on both sides. So it’s going to complicate the issues. Let me just ask you this to clear the air: Do you have a hand in the campaign? Are you advising anybody?

No.

You could argue, I suppose, that we ought to wait until the election and then go ahead with whatever you want to do about the troops. Do you think that would wait too long?

It comes down to the question, among other things, of casualties. I, like most Americans, am distressed by the cost in blood and treasure of a campaign that is widely acknowledged to have no hope of success, success being framed in the way that we defined it a minute ago.

But when I asked you, should you give the surge a chance, and you quoted Gen. Petraeus as saying we would know in a few months, and I said, “What if it succeeds?”, then you said we ought to pull out anyway. In other words, you’re saying it has no chance of success, but then I’m saying what if it did succeed?

If it did succeed, what would be the purpose of a prolonged American presence? If it succeeded, success implying really an end to a civil war, and therefore the possibility of the creation of a new, truly national multiconfessional Iraqi army, there might be real incentives and some utility to keep American forces in country for training purposes, to insure that the Iraqi army evolved in a way that worked best for Iraq and for regional security. But apart from that, what purpose would American forces really serve?

In other words, win or lose, success or failure, there’s no need for such a large U.S. presence, we ought to start pulling them out in twelve to eighteen months either way.

That’s correct. The damage being done to the American reputation and therefore its diplomatic effectiveness worldwide is a very serious penalty for a campaign that is not succeeding in what it was intended to do. And this has other ramifications. On the one hand, we’ve got the bulk of our ground forces tied up in Iraq, which makes them unavailable, or at least unavailable quickly, for use in another contingency. That’s a real constraint that we have to take very seriously.

As long as we’re in Iraq, we’re also going to have a White House that is necessarily preoccupied by the crisis there and unable to focus on other challenges. The discussion thus far has been on the costs of disengaging or withdrawing, rather than the cost of staying. And it’s not that there are no costs to leaving. There are significant costs to leaving, rooted in the misplaced and poorly executed intervention to begin with. We will have to take steps to buttress our credibility, the perceptions of American reliability. There will be concerns about an Iran that already thinks it has the upper hand becoming more emboldened and possibly reckless. There are serious costs to leaving and they’re not to be denied. But the cost to staying has been increasing and on balance they’re going to get bigger.

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