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Is U.S. In Iraq To Stay?

Discussants: Steven Metz, and Lawrence J. Korb, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress
Updated: October 23, 2006


Some experts argue the United States intends to establish a long-term military foothold in Iraq to increase its influence in the region. The construction of a new $592 million embassy and four "enduring" military facilities confirm their suspicions. Yet others say the White House is merely responding to present security concerns and will pull out once the stability is achieved and some form of national-unity government is established. Lawrence Korb, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, and Steven Metz, chairman of the regional strategy and planning department at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, debate the merits of keeping a longer-term military presence in Iraq.

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Lawrence Korb

Most Recent

October 23, 2006

Lawrence Korb

Steve is correct that any policy changes in Iraq must begin from where we are and that our national interests and moral responsibilities must guide our actions. But he is wrong when he argues that a phased redeployment of our forces from Iraq that will be completed some fifty-eight months after we invaded and leaves a residual force in the region would not meet these criteria.

It is also incorrect to imply that our decision about whether to leave Iraq should not be part of our grand strategy. In fact, decisions about Iraq must be a component of that strategy. Just as a grand strategy got us to make sudden dramatic policy shifts as withdrawing from Vietnam and abandoning our Taiwanese ally to recognize mainland China, so we must change course in Iraq right now.

Had we not extricated ourselves from Vietnam or played the China card, the Cold War would not have ended when it did. In fact, by remaining bogged down in the quagmire of Iraq we will be repeating the mistake the Soviets made in Afghanistan. Obviously we must be concerned about whether the Iraqi government is capable of resolving its internal divisions and taking on more responsibility. But we have already given them more than ample time to begin doing that and unless we put pressure on them by setting a date certain, they will continue to use us as a crutch to avoid making the hard choices. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld put it well on October 20, 2006, when he said, "It's their country. They're going to have to govern it, they're going to have to provide security for it, and they're going to have to do it sooner rather than later."

Our leaving Iraq will also mean less support for the insurgency in Iraq and that the radical jihadi groups will lose a powerful recruiting tool. And while Steve is correct that the jihadis will not stand down, we will have more hard and soft power to deal with them around the globe once we begin withdrawing. Finally, redeploying from Iraq will not roll back the nuclear goals of North Korea and Iran, but it will give us more military and diplomatic options to deal with them.

Steven Metz

October 20, 2006

Steven Metz

Assessing the decision to intervene in Iraq is important as Americans frame their future grand strategy. But it should not determine how we move forward in Iraq itself. Our national interests and moral responsibilities must do that. We are where we are despite how we got here.

Similarly, it is important to understand the effect that American involvement in Iraq has had on transnational jihadism and the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea. But I don't think that a case can be made that American disengagement from Iraq in 2007 will cause the transnational jihadi movement to stand down or encourage Iran and North Korea to abandon their nuclear ambitions. We are where we are.

I believe Larry and I agree that the ultimate goal is a stable, democratic Iraq that is not dependent on the U.S. military. The question is how to get there.

We disagree on what should determine the form and extent of U.S. military involvement. Should it be based on the security situation in Iraq and on the actions of the elected government? Or should it be based on the conclusion that we've paid enough in terms of money and blood?

It seems to me that rapid military disengagement based on a timetable we set rather than by the security situation or the actions of the elected government only makes strategic sense if:

  • We believe that the elected Iraqi government has the ability to resolve the conflict and that an American withdrawal will motivate it to do so.
  • We believe that the insurgents seek and will accept a role in the democratic process but are deterred from doing so by the American military presence.
  • We no longer care what happens to Iraq and are willing to accept an even more horrific civil war and humanitarian disaster, a partial or complete insurgent victory, a return to authoritarianism, or open intervention by regional states as they clamor to support their Iraqi allies and clients.

I do not think any of these conditions hold. I'm again reminded of a quotation by Churchill. He once said "democracy is the worst possible form of all the rest." This idea can be extrapolated to American strategy in Iraq. Supporting the elected government in the hope that it can and will become strong enough to stand on its own is the worst possible policy. Save all the rest.

Lawrence Korb

October 19, 2006

Lawrence Korb

Because we invaded Iraq for the wrong reasons and without enough troops to secure the country, the United States now has no good options. As Francis Fukuyama noted, if you had told Americans it would cost 2,800 lives, 23,000 wounded, and $400 billion so that Iraq could have an election, you “would have been laughed out of the ball park.” Thomas Ricks has rightly characterized our military campaign as a "fiasco."

Steve is right when he argues that the benefits of our strategy in Iraq must outweigh the costs and that a date certain for a withdrawal makes sense only if it will best promote America’s responsibilities to the Iraqi people and U.S. national interests. But he is wrong when he concludes that the benefits still outweigh the costs and that setting a date certain for a strategic redeployment will not fulfill our moral responsibilities and promote U.S. national interests.

Despite forty-three months of occupation, the situation is getting worse. Over the past year, the number of attacks on U.S. personnel has doubled to eight hundred per week. In the first nineteen days of October, seventy-two American military personnel have been killed, and about five hundred wounded.

The situation for the Iraqis is also deteriorating. Casualties among Iraqi troops and civilians are far higher now than at any previous time in the war. In the past two months, about six thousand died, more than in all of 2003. Electricity output last week was less than in the same period as 2005. 

The main threat to the future of Iraq is not the insurgency but the civil war. The twenty-three Sunni and Shiite militias have replaced the Sunni Arab insurgency as the biggest challenge to stability to Iraq and Iraqi leaders have vetoed requests by U.S. officials to take on some of the Shiite militias. 

The continued large U.S. presence in Iraq is also undermining U.S. security interests.  The recent NIE [April 2006 National Intelligence Estimate] reveals that Iraq has become a cause celebre for recruiting terrorists. Both North Korea and Iran are pursuing nuclear weapons because neither believes we can execute a credible military operation while we are bogged down in Iraq. The U.S. standing in the world has never been lower. Our ground forces are overstretched. To meet its recruiting goals, the Army is granting waivers to one out of five recruits in spite of relaxing its age, educational, and aptitude standards. Retention of first term Army officers is so low that 98 percent of the captains were promoted to major.

Setting the end of 2007 as a date certain for the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and redeploying some of them within the region and to Afghanistan, and bringing the rest home, will not guarantee success but by providing incentives to the Iraqis will give us the best chance of minimizing the damage to U.S. security interests.  And leaving after nearly five years is hardly shunning our moral responsibilities. 

Steven Metz

October 18, 2006

Steven Metz

Northern Ireland is an excellent comparison. The British government has said to its partners, "Difficult steps are vital for long-term stability. If you do not undertake them by a specified date, certain things you do not want to happen will, in fact, happen." That is the same way that the U.S. Congress was able to cajole the government of El Salvador to undertake serious reform in the 1980s.

But this is not the same as telling partners that things they do not want to happen (such as the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq) will happen regardless of what they do. I fully agree with Larry that making U.S. engagement conditional on actions by the Iraqi government is sound strategy. But making decisions about the future of U.S. engagement simply on the basis of how burdensome it has become is not.

There is no question the Iraqi government has been disappointing in some ways. Running a democracy is difficult under the best of circumstances. And Iraq has not been blessed with the best of circumstances. Its leaders are learning open governance on the fly while facing severe duress. Inevitably they will make mistakes. But I do not think that weakening the elected Iraqi by a complete American disengagement will make them wiser or more determined. And that, after all, is what we want.

Setting a date certain for disengagement only makes sense if it will best promote both America's moral responsibilities to the Iraq people and U.S. national interests. No one knows what the future will bring, but to me, at least, it seems implausible that the Iraqi insurgents will abandon terrorism and become good democratic citizens once American troops no longer walk the streets. I am hard pressed to think of an insurgency that pitted an elected government against radicals where the withdrawal of support for the government led to a good outcome.

General Dannatt's comments about a British withdrawal are important. But we need to put them in context. First, Tony Blair stated that they reflected British policy of not leaving before Iraqi troops were ready to assume full responsibility for security duties. More importantly, the security situation in Iraq's south—and the role British forces play there—differ in some important ways from the security situation in the other regions, and from the role played by U.S. forces. It may be true that the costs of the British presence in Basra outweighs the benefits. But that does not automatically mean that the costs of the American presence in other parts of Iraq outweighs the benefits.

Lawrence Korb

October 18, 2006

Lawrence Korb

Steven is correct when he argues that the key question is how to reach a point with few or no troops in a way that gives the elected Iraqi government the best chance of stabilizing the country. But he is wrong when he argues that the Iraqi government is best positioned to decide the pace of American military withdrawal, and that the Iraqi government is making an adequate effort to do that.

The fact of the matter is the Iraqi government is not making any real efforts to make the situation better. This was demonstrated by the Iraqi prime minister’s decision this week to indefinitely postpone measures both to disband the militias and delay until November 4 convening a reconciliation conference meant to close the widening gap between Iraq’s Shiite majority and Sunni minority.

It is not "hubris" at all to claim that setting a date certain for withdrawal will motivate or encourage the Iraqis to come together politically and take on more of the security burden. The basic fact is that nothing gets done without deadlines. Take the current situation in Northern Ireland. Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern have essentially issued an ultimatum to the conflicting parties that they must reach an agreement by early November to form a government or else to remain under British direct rule indefinitely.

Moreover, the contention that the American military presence is not fueling the insurgency is not supported by military commanders. For example, General Richard Dannatt, chief of staff of the British army, commented that Britain should withdraw its troops from Iraq because their presence was fueling the insurgency, not quelling it. If American troops are no longer targets of the insurgent attacks why have more than 400 of them been wounded in the last two weeks alone?

Finally, I agree we owe it to the Iraqis and the American people to do the best we can to assure that the elected government rules. But the Iraqi government cannot rule unless it disbands the militias and finally convenes a national reconciliation conference, steps it shows little sign of taking on. While these politicians have dithered since their election, the United States has lost the equivalent of ten battalions of killed and wounded U.S. soldiers and Marines.

Setting a withdrawal date at the end of 2007 should prod the Iraqi leaders to do what they must do. It will also mean we will have been in Iraq nearly five years, long enough to fulfill our moral obligation to both the Iraqis and the killed and wounded Americans who have sacrificed so much.

Steven Metz

October 17, 2006

Steven Metz

It’s absolutely true that most Iraqis would like American troops out of their country. It's also true that most Americans of all political persuasions want the same thing. Congress, recognizing that, enacted the Iraq Sovereignty Promotion Act of 2005, which prohibits a long-term or permanent U.S. military presence there. This is now law and not simply a policy decision. It will happen.

But the key question is how to reach a point with few or no U.S. troops in a way that gives the elected Iraqi government the best chance of stabilizing the country. For Americans to write off the elected Iraqi government and leave it to its enemies is, I believe, counterproductive, irresponsible, and immoral.

At this point, then, the debate is not so much on the specific extent and pace of American withdrawal. Security conditions will determine that. The issue is who makes the call. The Iraqi government itself is best positioned to decide the extent and pace of American military withdrawal. I find it difficult to accept the idea that the Iraqi government and people are not making an adequate effort to assure their own security and thus need us to threaten withdrawal as motivation. I’m afraid that is hubris, a condescending attitude unlikely to have the desired results. In statecraft, "tough love" often brings unintended consequences. Rather than lighting a fire under the Iraqi government, setting a date for full withdrawal disconnected from the actual security situation is likely to force the government to cut a deal with the insurgents, and to do so from a position of weakness.

Events in Iraq do not support the idea that it is mostly the American presence which fuels the insurgency. That might have been true in 2003, but as the conflict evolved, its basic dynamics changed. The majority of insurgent attacks today are not directed at Americans but at other Iraqis—many of whom have nothing to do with the Americans—or at infrastructure. At this point, the focus of the conflict is not the American presence but who ultimately rules Iraq .

We owe it to the Iraqis and the American people to do the best we can to assure that the elected government in Baghdad rules. And one way of doing that is to defer to its judgment on the extent and pace of military withdrawal. When it is time for us to go, Iraq’s leaders will tell us.

Lawrence Korb

October 16, 2006

Lawrence Korb

I agree with Steven’s argument that it “simply makes no sense” for the United States to maintain a large military presence in Iraq. However, I believe he is wrong when he states that suggesting a full withdrawal from Iraq is imminent or inevitable will encourage the insurgents and lead the Iraqi government to believe it must accommodate them. In fact, the opposite is true. Only by announcing that the United States will leave Iraq by a specific date and that we will not maintain any permanent bases in Iraq will we have any hope of creating an Iraq that is sufficiently stable and not a threat to our interests in the region.

Given our moral responsibility to the Iraqi people for our invasion and the current configuration, I would set the date for the end of 2007. We should also reduce the size of our embassy to a more reasonable size. Announcing a timetable and a complete withdrawal will ultimately undermine the insurgency, not encourage it. Opinion polls show that 94 percent of Iraqis reject the philosophy of al-Qaeda, 78 percent believe the U.S. military presence is provoking more violence than it is preventing, 71 percent want us out within a year, and 61 percent approve of attacks on America.

Moreover, the U.S. ambassador and the military commanders are now acknowledging that sectarian violence (civil war) has surpassed the insurgency as the biggest threat to Iraq. This civil war can only be diffused if the political compromises are made. Getting out of Iraq by the end of 2007 will not only give the Iraqis the proper incentives, it will also allow the United States to enhance its overall security by giving it the capacity to send more troops to Afghanistan, bring the National Guard back to guard the homeland, and free up our overstretched and underequipped troops for other contingencies.

Steven Metz

October 15, 2006

Steven Metz

America's primary strategic objective in the Middle East has been consistent since the 1970s: Assure the free flow of petroleum into the global market. Despite charges the United States seeks to "control" the oil by managing how much is produced or where it goes, it has never attempted to do so.

Two things can interfere with the free flow of oil from the region: dominance by a state bent on manipulating petroleum prices for political reasons, or internal conflict which limits production and shipment. After September 11, the United States expanded its objectives to include minimizing or ending support for terrorism by regional states. The challenge was finding a way to do this. One option was to minimize the American profile in the region. The other was to undercut the conditions that gave rise to terrorism by changing political and economic systems. The second of these methods drove American strategy for several years but there is every indication its problems and costs are leading American policymakers back to the first.

Given this, the most effective American strategy in the region is to prevent dominance by a hostile state and forestall internal conflict indirectly or from a distance. This is the only approach that supports American objectives at minimum cost and risk. There is little reason to sustain a major U.S.military presence in the heart of the region. This would antagonize the region's people without adding to America 's ability to promote its vital interests. It simply makes no sense.

There is a conundrum though, particularly in Iraq. In order to establish the conditions for withdrawing American military forces, the United States must demonstrate a willingness to leave them there. Signaling that a full withdrawal is imminent or inevitable will encourage the insurgents and lead the Iraqi government to believe that it must accommodate them. Edward Luttwak [of the Center for Strategic and International Studies] once noted that strategy has a paradoxical logic in which one must sometimes indicate an intent to do one thing in order to actually do something else. This is unfolding in Iraq today.

As Winston Churchill noted, "Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing...after they have exhausted all other possibilities." We are at that point in the Middle East. A large-scale and long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq will not promote U.S.interests in the most effective and efficient way. American policymakers, whether in the current administration or some future one, realize this and will do the right thing—retain the ability to shape the region's security without a massive number of troops deep in its heart.

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