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In Iraq, What Exactly Was the Alternative?

Author: Emerson Brooking, Research Associate, Defense Policy
June 24, 2014
Council on Foreign Relations

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Amid news of terrible losses inflicted upon the Iraqi government by advancing Sunni militants, accusations have flown as to who should bear responsibility for ceding the hard-fought gains of the Iraq War. A number of recent commentaries—many by planners and supporters of the initial 2003 invasion—have placed blame squarely on President Obama's withdrawal of U.S. combat forces at the end of 2011.

If only the United States had remained in Iraq longer, they argue, the Iraqi state under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki might have stabilized itself. Paul Wolfowitz, former Deputy Secretary of Defense, goes a step further, asserting that Iraq required an open-ended security commitment akin to the United States' sixty-year defense of South Korea following the 1953 armistice. It is a parallel he has made before.

Taken as a whole, however, these critics offer little in the way of actionable alternatives. Their most commonly articulated position—that U.S. troops should have simply stayed "until the job was done"—does not represent a viable strategy. In fact, it represents the opposite of strategy.

Let's begin with the remarkable (and untenable) equivalencies drawn between post-war Korea and post-war Iraq. In wake of the Korean War, American troops garrisoned the peninsula to provide a bulwark against renewed aggression by North Korean forces. Their primary mission was outward-facing deterrence, not national reconstruction. Because North and South Korea remain at odds, there has been a continued need for American presence in the region.

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