I sat (okay, stood outside the overflow room) through a two hour panel at the US Institute for Peace this morning, chaired by Daniel Serwer and featuring Kimberly Kagan, Charles Knight, Colin Kahl, and Rend al-Rahim, devoted to the future of U.S. forces in Iraq. It was an unusually rich panel discussion, and all four panelists made useful and thoughtful contributions.
To very briefly summarize, Kimberly Kagan laid out the familiar argument for the surge's success and the great progress being made, with more nuance and caveats than in some of her op-eds (but still drawing this from Colin Kahl: "I guess I see the glass half-empty, and Kim sees the glass as... overflowing"). Charles Knight gave a highly cogent presentation of the Commonwealth Institute's "Quickly, Carefully, Generously" report, arguing passionately that there will be no real political reconciliation until American military forces leave. Colin Kahl presented the Center for a New American Security's "Shaping the Iraqi Inheritance" report calling for "conditional engagement", arguing for the need to move away from 'Iraq centrism' (strategic interests actually exist beyond Iraq's borders, if you can believe it) and 'Iraq maximalism' (holding our policies hostage to outcomes manifestly beyond our capabilities to produce). Finally, Rend al-Rahim laid out a devastating depiction of Iraq's current situation, and - perhaps surprisingly - offered a wholehearted endorsement of Kahl's description of Iraq and policy recommendations.
All the presentations were rich and detailed, and I would quibble with bits of each of them and agree with others. But I wanted to highlight here three interesting points of contention which came out of the presentations and discussion.
First, on the topic of the hour, Kagan was at pains to assert that US troop withdrawals would happen soon and the only question was when and under what conditions (in line with the ongoing blurring of McCain's position). But she later argued that troops could not be withdrawn until after provincial and national elections, since they would be needed to provide security for those vital political moments. I do not know how to square these two claims. Since it now looks unlikely that provincial elections will be held this year, and national elections are not scheduled until late 2009, waiting for those would mean that withdrawals could not even begin until 2010 - the year in which both Obama and Maliki reportedly want to see the withdrawal process completed. At least she didn't make the laughable argument I heard from one prominent advocate of 'strategic patience' that high levels of US troops during the elections would somehow lead Iraqis to eschew sectarian voting (it didn't help in 2005, and the election law, the integrity of the electoral process, and the behavior of political parties might matter a bit more).
Second, on bargaining and conditionality. I thought that Kahl had the better of Kagan on the questions of conditionality as a means of influencing Iraqi behavior. While Kagan strongly objected to the characterization of her position as "unconditional engagement", Kahl convincingly argued (based in part on his conversations with American diplomats and military officers) that the Bush administration's refusal to contemplate withdrawals undermined all attempts at tactical-level conditionality. His presentation (and the underlying report) render laughable Charles Krauthammer's column today arguing that Maliki thinks that McCain would be a tougher negotiator than Obama (because offering unconditional support forever is such an effective bargaining tactic). Kagan's rebuttal, that she has seen no evidence that conditionality has worked in influencing Iraqi behavior, only strengthened Kahl's point (why would she have seen evidence of it working when, by Kahl's argument, it hasn't been tried?). At the same time, I thought that Knight (politely) drew blood with his comment that conditioning US withdrawal will fail because the "conditions which 'make leaving possible', whether building the Iraqi Security Forces or political reconciliation, will always recede into the time horizon like a mirage." That's one reason why the timetable idea should remain an important part of the kind of strategy Kahl advocates, since it offers a buffer against attempts on either side to backslide on commitments.
Finally, Kim Kagan shocked me with a comment made forcefully, twice, once towards the end of her prepared remarks and again at the opening of her closing remarks: the future of Iraq depends primarily on American decisions, not Iraqi decisions. I found this extraordinarily revealing: for her it really is all about us. This infantalizes Iraqis - and, as Kahl would surely note, demands nothing of them, since it is American decisions and will which matter and not theirs. Such a world-view, characteristic of so much neoconservative foreign policy thinking, explains a great deal. How could one possibly contemplate drawing down American forces, after all, if American actions are the only actions that matter, American power the only power which matters, American decisions the only decisions which matter? Why would it matter what Maliki says, or what Iraqi politicians or public opinion polls say, if what really matters is only ultimately us?
This isn't just unintentionally demeaning to Iraqis - it is also clearly wrong. Of course Iraqi decisions about political reconciliation, constitutional reforms, institution building, sectarianism, violence and more will shape the future of Iraq, influenced by but clearly independent of American policies and preferences. Certainly none of the other panelists agreed. Kahl pointed to the inevitably declining American influence, linking this to his oft-stated argument about the negative consequences of the Bush administration's refusal to offer any strategic conditionality. Knight stated succinctly that the solutions to Iraq's problems will be found by Iraqis, not by us. Rahim, the only Iraqi on the panel, tactfullly ignored it.
There was much more in the discussion, and if the video becomes available it's worth checking out.