In the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs, Stephen Biddle, Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack wrote in an important article entitled "How To Leave a Stable Iraq" that the United States should build on progress in Iraq by refraining from significant troop drawdowns in the short term until progress is consolidated:
Both to deal with the new problems and to guard against any revival of the old ones, any further troop drawdowns, now that the "surge" is over, should be modest until after Iraq gets through two big rounds of elections -- in late 2008 at the provincial level and in late 2009 at the national level -- which have the potential either to reinforce important gains or to reopen old wounds. But starting in 2010, if current trends continue, the United States may be able to start cutting back its troop presence substantially, possibly even halving the total U.S. commitment by sometime in 2011, without running excessive risks with the stability of Iraq and the wider Persian Gulf region.
In the forthcoming issue of Foreign Affairs (November/December), I have a brief response, entitled "Politics First: Why Only U.S. Withdrawal Can Spur Iraqi Cooperation" (no link as of yet, sorry: the issue seems to have reached subscribers, but is not yet online - I will add a link when it's available). I argue that
Although Biddle, O’Hanlon, and Pollack are right about the tenuous but real security gains in Iraq, they are wrong about the effects this military progress has had on the political realm and about the likely consequences of their recommendation. Their approach would almost certainly mean that troops would remain at high levels for far longer than they suggest, because the kind of political progress they anticipate—and which would, they argue, allow U.S. troops to withdraw from an Iraq that has achieved “sustained stability”—will likely not materialize.
The problem lies in the fundamentally flawed belief that providing more security is the key to achieving political compromise. Restoring basic levels of security from the low point of 2006 was indeed essential. But now, contrary to what the authors argue, improved security is making the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki less likely to make meaningful compromises, since Maliki currently sees little downside to not doing so. The Iraqi government simply does not share American assessments of the negative consequences that would result from failing to achieve reconciliation. And as long as the U.S. military protects Iraqi leaders from the consequences of their choices, they are probably correct.
I make three specific arguments, building on the premise that the moral hazard created by the U.S. military presence creates perverse incentives undermining American efforts to help create a self-sustaining Iraqi polity which can get by without it.
First, I argue that the provincial and national elections are unlikely to produce a fundamentally new political situation. Most likely the elections will reshuffle the political deck, producing new lines of grievance and cooperation but not the kind of new political reality which will make American drawdowns suddenly appear more feasible. The elections are extremely important, as I've written many times here, but after the painful experiences of 2005, when much-hyped elections led to sectarian voting, political stalemate, and the sectarian war of 2006, expectations should not be too high for their transformative power. Thus,
"The United States should of course push for fair, internationally supervised elections and help provide security on election day. But U.S. grand strategy cannot be held hostage to elections that are unlikely to fundamentally change Iraqi politics for the better."
Second, I warn that an incremental approach to promoting political change, absent a fundamental change in the incentives of the political actors, is unlikely to deliver what the U.S. hopes for:
"the slow and steady approach to Iraqi political accommodation they advocate is a recipe for indefinite delays. In the past, even when Iraqi politicians have reached formal agreements, they have gone on to drag their feet over implementation, stripping the agreements of their intended meaning and generating even greater frustration. This is best exemplified by the failure of the Iraqi government to integrate the tens of thousands of former insurgents in the U.S.- backed Sons of Iraq into the Iraqi security forces, despite constant U.S. pressure and dire warnings of the consequences. Rather than moving the Iraqis toward compromise, [their] approach would create a multitude of perverse incentives for Iraqi politicians to produce just enough progress to keep U.S. forces engaged but never enough to allow them to leave. Political progress would continue to dance just out of reach, with its failures always offering a reason for the United States to delay the drawdown of its military forces."
Third, I argue that the evolution of Iraqi politics (see my article with Brian Katulis for a much more detailed analysis of those dynamics) refutes the claim that providing more security will necessarily give Iraqi leaders the space and confidence to make political compromises:
"the refrain that the United States has made progress on security but must do better on political progress misses the point. For Iraqi leaders who do not wish to share power, the failure to translate security into political progress is a feature, not a glitch. There will be no significant political progress until the incentives of Iraqi leaders change, which will not happen as long as the United States continues on the current—and Biddle, O’Hanlon, and Pollack’s proposed—course. It is time to acknowledge the limits of the United States’ ability to exert leverage over Iraqi politics. The primary drivers of Iraqi politics are Iraqis, not Americans, and a stable political order must rest on the alignment of their interests and not on the exercise of U.S. power. It is not simply that the United States cannot militarily or financially sustain the commitments required to achieve a perfect solution; it is that the U.S. military presence actively impedes the essential political accommodations needed to create a stable, broadly representative Iraqi political order."
A U.S. commitment to draw down U.S. troops over a defined period, as the Iraqi political leadership itself now demands, would give Iraqi politicians a self-interest in political accommodation—accommodation reached not to meet foreign demands but to ensure their own survival. A clear and credible public declaration of the United States’ intention to withdraw would shift the incentives of all the major political actors. And a responsible exit strategy would then offer plenty of opportunity to shape the transition and guard against the likely dangers. In contrast, a policy built on U.S. troops staying in Iraq, whether to enforce local cease-fires, maintain pressure for political accommodation, or moderate the fears of Iraqi politicians, is a problem masquerading as a solution.
Up next: Steve Biddle, who is one of the sharpest military analysts I know and a friend for whom I have tremendous respect even when we disagree as we do here, offers up a sharp rebuttal. Then, I respond as best I can. As with last summer's online debate between me, Colin Kahl, and Brian Katulis I think this opens up extremely important avenues of debate. Coming soon.... (probably early next week).
[NOTE: sorry for all the confusion, for those of you who saw this post appear and then disappear - I just had to check with Foreign Affairs to make sure that the issue had been published and that it was legit to post about it. The issue did go to subscribers, so even though it's not yet on-line I got the green light - and so the post is back.]