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November 10, 2007


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It seems to me that the trouble, from the beginning, was thinking of Iraq only in terms of U.S. interests. This is not only unfair to Iraq, but it distorts U.S. policy. The first thing that needs to be conceded in any discussion of Iraq is that there are likely to almost certain areas where Iraq's interests and the U.S.'s aren't aligned. And it is necessary for any U.S. policy to allow for that. For instance, it is almost certain that Iraq will be much closer to Iran than the U.S. would ever have imagined. U.S. policy has been to try to arrest this drift by, sometimes, literally arresting Iranians. However, trying to make Iraq align itself here with the U.S. has and will prove to be not only impossible, but a factor in seriously contorting U.S. policy, causing the Americans to pursue mutually incompatible policies.

That said, what is omitted in Kahl's piece? I think two things are omitted. One is empirical, the other is strategic.

The empirical thing is that Iraq now has perhaps two million refugees ringing it, and undoubtedly this fact is going to start impinging, for better and probably for worse, in the next 18 month interval. Astonishingly, this fact is almost never discussed by the same people who are "planning" the U.S. presence in Iraq. It is as if it could be wished away. It can't. Not only can't it be wished away, but a high percentage of the refugees are professionals, or from the upper and upper middle class. These are not people who are just going to fade away. Without some very concentrated U.S. policy vis a vis this massive problem, political solutions, including 'reconciliation', are going to be very vulnerable to refugee objection. In addition, if our policy is really oriented towards stopping Al quaeda, we should consider that al quaeda flourishes best among ... refugees.
The strategic consideration is this: Kahl considers that withdrawal of the American military from Iraq is the equivalent to the American withdrawal from Iraq. This is a mistake. The withdrawal of all troops over the eighteen month period - which I think is the much better plan - frees up money and resources that would be put to better use in helping Iraqis (through Iraqi companies, or the state) rebuild Iraqi infrastructure. Given that Iraq ultimately depends on selling oil, there will never, really, be a point at which the U.S. 'abandons' Iraq - it is of an importance that Vietnam, for instance, simply didn't have. There are many, many ways to influence a country and to try to make it align itself, if possible, with the U.S. that don't involve massive numbers of U.S. troops holding positions on that country's soil. It is a mistake to put a permanent U.S. military force of that size in the Persian Gulf. And I have doubts that, if Kahl's plan is adopted, that there will ever be a withdrawal, or at least a voluntary withdrawal, of U.S. troops from Iraq. There should be. It makes really no sense for Iraq to be a staging ground for U.S. troops - even if you feel that U.S. troops should be in the Persian Gulf region.
One of the great conciliators in Iraq right now is the amazing price of oil - the Iraqis, and especially the professional class, are well aware of the tidal wave of wealth sweeping the region. This is the best lever for a stable Iraq, however the regions in it come together. The U.S. would do much better to tear up the oil law, let this become an issue that Iraqis take a referendum vote on, and forget trying to kick back against the current fashion, among oil producing states, for increased state control of the oil. Neo-liberalism is not worth fighting for.


A very interesting discussion between Kahn and Katulis, to which Roger upthread adds substantially by highlighting the refugee problem.

As before, Kahn is persuasive in his arguments as to what course might stand the best chance of leading to the "least bad" outcome in Iraq. Also as before, the questions he does not ask or attempt to answer practically ask themselves as one reads his remarks here.

How much does Kahn expect his preferred course to cost the United States?

Along with (apparently) just about everyone discussing this subject, he asserts "vital" American interests in Iraq without ever asking: vital compared to what?

Should the future of one, mid-sized Arab country continue to be the preoccupation of senior levels of the American government, the focal point of American military planning and the object of vast additional expenditures of borrowed money, into the indefinite future? To this question at least it seems clear that Kahn does have an answer. He may regard the odds of success as very low even if his preferred course of action is followed to the letter, but his answer is still "yes."

We can all appreciate that preventing an al Qaeda sanctuary on Iraqi soil is absolutely necessary from the American point of view. However, the other objectives Kahn considers vital -- avoiding a renewal of sectarian violence in Iraq and avoiding a regional conflagration -- are in the former case merely desirable, and in the latter case most likely achievable without the indefinite American military commitment in Iraq that he calls for (the short version of why this is so is that governments in the region are aware of the danger and are anxious to avoid it. Having a American army in Iraq to separate potential combatants is useful in this context, but is surely not the only way to achieve this objective).

As I am well out of the mainstream -- my feet are in fact planted squarely on dry land -- on the question of how vital Iraq and its neighboring countries are to the United States, let me address Roger's point upthread about oil to explain why. This is another area in which most people discussing the subject assume a vital American interest without defining it. What this leads to is the adoption, by default, of a definition that is fully thirty years old. The reasoning behind this definition is that Middle Eastern oil is critical to the world economy; access to that oil is therefore essential to the United States; and it follows from this that the projection of military power in the Middle Eastern region is worth its cost.

The logic of this reasoning was far more compelling in the 1970s than it is today, for three reasons. First, revenues from the sale of oil are not discretionary for the oil-producing countries in the way they were during the 1970s' oil shocks. Middle Eastern countries then had relatively small elites presiding over much smaller populations and undeveloped economies; they couldn't have spent all their oil revenues even if they wanted to. This gave them freedom of action as far as setting production levels that they no longer have.

Second, the temporary removal of countries with large reserves of oil -- like Iraq -- from the world market does not have the same meaning it did in the 1970s. At that time, such a disruption meant an undesirable spike in world oil prices, and a boost to inflation that was then the major economic problem facing the American economy. But at this time, the disruption has already happened; the damage has already been done. Moreover, increasing demand for oil in the world market makes the issue of future availability at least as pressing as oil's current price. In other words, it doesn't matter as much that Iraq's oil reserves be accessible now as that they become accessible eventually -- something an American army in the country cannot guarantee, and which would very likely come to pass, sooner or later, if the American army left Iraq tomorrow.

The third and final reason to reevaluate whether the cost on American military power projection in the Middle East is worth it to the United States is, of course, that the Bush administration has increased that cost dramatically since the spring of 2003. Kahn (and for that matter Katulis) does not see this as an issue comparable in importance to, say, the prospects for bottom-up reconciliation in Iraq. Neither does the Bush administration. In fact, though, the cost to the United States -- in money, in lives, and in all the issues we cannot address because the entire attention of our government is focused on Iraq -- of this adventure is the most important issue on the table.

I respect the careful thought that participants in this discussion have brought to it. The discussion, however, is academic as long as it assumes that what matters most is what happens to Iraq. The American public neither will, nor should, sustain that assumption for the length of time it would take to do all the things Kahn thinks we ought to do there.

Eric Martin

Lest I be accused of being overly polite again, one of two posts that I plan on penning in response to Prof. Kahl's latest can be found here.

Eric Martin

And while I'm being impolite, could I make a minor request Mssr. Aardvark:

We changed the name from Liberals Against Terrorism to American Footprints a little over a year ago (a good move in my opinion), and the URL changed as well.


Your blogroll remains a bit on the anachronistic side if you catch my drift ;)

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