One of the reasons I named my blog “RealClearTruth” is because I have a strong desire to make complex issues clear, to dig down to the essential elements in order to bring clarity and make it easier to determine what should be done. In this regard, I have not been satisfied with any of the leading presidential candidates with how they have framed the issue of the war in Iraq. I’ve heard them speak. I have gone to their websites to read their issue papers and have watched their videos on this issue. And while there are large differences, no one seems able to present the issue in a way that makes it obvious what is really at stake here.
Naturally, we’re talking about politicians whose priority is to win, not to help us make the most informed decisions, and thus their policy papers focus more on how to best differentiate and make them stand out, but even so it seems to me every one of them could do better.
I have provided below the links to their policy papers on Iraq where you can read or watch a video for yourself, but allow me to briefly summarize each of their positions, as best as I understand them.
John McCain — McCain’s focus in on developing strategies for how we can win this war. The better the strategy, the quicker we will win. He favored the surge for just this reason. The surge has improved stability and that has enabled the process of reconciliation between the Iraqi factions to begin. McCain also warns of the consequences of losing in Iraq, including a terrorist safe haven, possible regional conflict and the “nightmare scenario” of genocide.
Hillary Clinton — Hillary wants to end the war by immediately starting a phased redeployment, while simultaneously pursuing diplomatic initiatives (regional level and UN sponsored) and aid packages in an effort to broker peace and achieve stability among the various warring factions. She would continue fighting al Qaeda with targeted operations by specialized units.
Barack Obama — Obama will immediately begin removing troops and have all combat brigades out in 16 months. Troops will be maintained in the region to protect our diplomats and to carry out targeted attacks on al Qaeda if they attempt to reestablish bases inside Iraq. He will convene a new constitutional convention in Iraq, with UN assistance, that will not adjourn until a new accord is reached. He will couple this with regional diplomacy to create a security compact with Iraq’s neighbors and confront humanitarian issues.
As you can see, Hillary and Obama have very similar approaches. She emphasizes her experience with foreign leaders which presumably gives her knowledge of how to tackle the diplomatic challenges while he emphasizes his leadership skills, a desire to talk directly and openly to all parties (including Iran), and the hope that things can change.
Both offer the hope that there is a way to extricate our military from Iraq and still bring stability to Iraq and the region. Both want to restrict our military fighting to targeted attacks on al Qaeda, in the hope that we can prevent the “safe havens” McCain warns about. Both have three point stability plans: negotiate non-interference of neighbors outside of Iraq, mediate the differences between factions inside of Iraq, and provide funding for reconstruction and humanitarian assistance.
Both assume that there is no real military solution, that the war has been too costly and that getting out will actually reduce tensions because we will no longer be an occupying force nor a magnet drawing terrorists into Iraq to kill us.
Part of the problem here is that no one can guarantee what the future will be if we take any of these paths. We’ve already been fighting for years, so how many more years will our military have to be engage for McCain’s plan to succeed? On the other hand, if the Palestinian issue is any indication, who can possibly hold out much hope for diplomatic initiatives in the Middle-East?
One can easily get frustrated, throw up his hands and say if the Iraqi’s can’t handle this problem on their own, then that’s their problem. We’ve paid a terrific price to free them, if they don’t want freedom then why should we continue to force it on them? Why not just go after al Qaeda and leave the Sunnis and Shias to fight it out?
But notice that NONE of the candidates are saying this! They all recognize the chaos that a civil war in Iraq can cause, not just for the Iraqi’s on humanitarian grounds, but also for the region which could well be destabilized leading to major problems in the oil markets — and much higher prices than we see even now.
No, all the candidates are “realists” to one degree or another. They all recognize the mess we’re in and they recognize the potential for things to get even worse. This is why they want to “stabilize” this problem. McCain prefers a military solution. Obama and Hillary prefer diplomatic solutions. But everybody wants stability.
America wants it. Our friends in the Middle East want it. Our European allies want it. Even Iran wants it — well mostly.
This is why diplomacy is seen as having a chance. If stability is truly in the interests of everybody in the world, then diplomacy and negotiation will find a way to make these interests apparent to everyone and a solution will be found.
But this is where the problem lies. Not everybody wants stability. Al Qaeda has invested everything they have to make sure stability is never achieved. This is their primary goal right now. If they can continue bringing chaos, then they know America will give up and leave. If they can continue bringing chaos, then they know the Shias and the Sunnis will never reconcile their differences and will continue to fight each other. If the can keep Iraqi’s fighting each other, then they can’t be forced out.
It should be clear. America wins if stability is achieved. Al Qaeda wins if chaos is maintained.
But what is al Qaeda’s real goal here? Why do they even care about Iraq? Is it only because we are there, and easy targets for them? Well yes, they do like killing us especially given that we have invaded “their” space. Our presence has been a marvelous recruiting tool for them.
But it is more than that. Al Qaeda hopes to create a new caliphate in the region and eventually worldwide. They believe they are on a mission from God to carry this out. They believe America is the principle evil of the world spreading cultural filth as well as being the primary military obstacle to their aspirations.
If they can make America withdrawal from Iraq, then they will not only see this as a victory, encouraging them that God has been on their side, but it will prove to them that we are a paper-tiger, emboldening them with the hope that they now possess a strategy for defeating America — simply sow enough chaos and America will leave.
Isn’t it clear then that al Qaeda won’t stop once our soldiers leave? They can’t afford to have our diplomatic efforts succeed either. They can’t afford to have the Iraqi government stabilize and reach reconciliation. They have to convince Muslims worldwide that destiny is on their side, that America has failed completely, that there is a way to thoroughly defeat America.
Does al Qaeda merely aspire to create “safe havens” in Iraq? Or is their true objective to defeat us in Iraq, making us leave? Which implies that their next objective would be to defeat us in Afghanistan, making us leave there. And what country would be their target after that? Pakistan with its nuclear arsenal? Saudi Arabia with the holy sites of Islam and modern weaponry?
It is true that leaving Iraq could spark a civil war even without al Qaeda involved. Civil wars can lead to a humanitarian crisis, regional conflict and even genocide. Regional conflict can destroy oil fields and trigger a meltdown in world markets leading to depression.
But those are only possibilities. No one knows for sure. If something really bad happens then presumably we can step back in and do something. In other words, as bad as those possibilities are, the war has wearied us to the point that we don’t care any more.
But al Qaeda goals and strategies aren’t speculation. We know how brutal, merciless and unconstrained they are. No tactic seems to give them pause. They even kill garbage collectors because they prefer the trash to go uncollected as that gives them cover for their roadside bombs (see here). They scrape the faces of women off with piano wire for the crime of showing their faces in public.
The only way we have succeeded against al Qaeda is to turn the locals against them. This tactic hasn’t been easy though. Locals, and their families, who are found to have turned on al Qaeda are sadistically murdered. Thus, it takes a significant presence that reassures locals that they are relatively safe and it takes commitment to persist so the locals know they won’t be abandoned to the al Qaeda butchers.
Isn’t it clear that only the latest strategy of the surge, that deploys soldiers and maintains them where they are deployed, is what has turned this whole thing around? Isn’t it obvious why our surge “coincidentally” coincided with the decision of the Sunnis to abandon their insurgency against us? They saw we finally came up with a strategy that might actually work!
Isn’t is equally clear then that diplomacy can never work against al Qaeda’s strategy? If our soldiers are not there in the streets, then the locals will go back to being intimidated by al Qaeda and al Qaeda will be able to regroup and achieve their goals.
Isn’t it clear then that this is a turning point in this war, in our fight against al Qaeda — in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the entire region? Because of the surge, the Sunnis have stopped fighting us, the locals have turned against al Qaeda and al Qaeda is on the run. If we abandon Iraq now all this will be undone and no amount of diplomacy will be able to stop al Qaeda’s barbarism.
Must we stay forever then? Well no. Iraqi forces continue to improve, albeit slowly, but gradually they will replace most of our soldiers on front line positions. We will be able to fall back to bases where we’ll become more of a stabilizing force than an actual combat force, and eventually we will be able to leave.
My point here is that we are at a significant turning point. From this point we can continue to drive al Qaeda back, deprive them of the victory they crave and build on the realization of local Muslims that al Qaeda is NOT the future they want. Or, we can turn from this point, allowing al Qaeda to recover their abilities to sow chaos and bring about civil war, allowing them to claim they were destined by God to push us out, and allowing them to renew their intimidation not only of locals but also of leaders throughout the region.
In other words, this is not simply the possibility of bad things happening if we leave Iraq. This is the fact that we currently have an effective strategy that is pushing back on al Qaeda. If we leave now it means we will stop pursuing this strategy which means we will stop pushing back on al Qaeda and that means they will push the other way.
Our only hope is that the Iraqi government is ready to take over what we’ve been doing. But the more precipitous our withdrawal, the more unfounded that hope is.
Isn’t this clear? Isn’t this obvious?
I honestly hope I have made this issue clearer. I hope some of the candidates will likewise be able to present this issue as clearly to the American public.
What do you think? I would like to hear from you. Thanks.