It’s over 100 degrees every day in Iraq this month, and few people have reliable access to electricity. Imagine sitting at home when even a small electric fan lies still for many hours of the day. Iraqis are right to be discouraged by the state of affairs – the rich and powerful Americans have not made life easier, and their own society is unraveling, with new tensions and violence emerging from nearly every quarter. Over four million Iraqis have left their homes, and are displaced within Iraq or refugees in neighboring states.
The American people are frustrated and dismayed at how little we have to show for our engagement in Iraq. Not that we could change the weather, but we did expect to see some measurable impact of the enormous commitment our government has made. We defeated a nasty dictator but were ill-prepared and over-confident about the challenges of reinventing a society and a state after decades of repression. Now the mood of the American people is to end to pain of our terrible losses in soldiers’ lives and health, and the unfathomable financial costs, that will surely have an impact on everything from health care and education at home, to our ability to engage constructively in other trouble spots around the world in the future.
The debate over Iraq during these hot months has two specific components: one is the benchmarks exercise, trying to evaluate Iraq’s performance as a key determinant of when the US can scale back its involvement, and the second is a new focus on the consequences and costs of the US departure.
The benchmarks idea was developed last year between Iraq and the United States as an alternative to deadlines; progress should be measured in meaningful milestones of state capacity, not by the clock and the political calendar. It was coupled with the President’s decision to provide a “surge” in our security effort, to create more secure conditions so that the government in Baghdad can move forward on its legislative agenda and build trust and confidence with Iraqi society. It was also an alternative to the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, whose mandate the Administration initially endorsed but, in the aftermath of the Republicans’ defeat in the midterm congressional elections, later rejected. (That report in a nutshell recommended a scaled back military mission, a sober separation of American and Iraqi goals and interests, and much greater focus on regional diplomacy.)
Under pressure from Congress, the Administration produced a mid-July interim report, assessing “satisfactory” progress on eight of the eighteen benchmarks. In what is clearly a complicated, even convoluted assessment method, the Administration has tried to give credit for progress in establishing procedures, even if the intended outcome has not yet been achieved. This is a rational and credible approach, but indicates that the score may be divorced from the reality of life, with its violence and other miseries, as experienced by Iraqi citizens. It also sidesteps the critical issue of whether our presence and our organizational energy is the critical ingredient, and how much of the current level of activity, on security, political decisions, and economics, would remain, should the US leave or sharply reduce its presence.
As casualties mount, Congress has insisted on making the benchmarks a “real time” exercise, not something to be used as an open-ended policy tool. Initially promised by mid-September, the Iraqi government and US officials are now suggesting that September will be too early, and they will need additional time to achieve even the minimum goals. To be sure, the full deployment of the additional troops did not occur until June, so there is a credible military argument that it has really only just begun. But Congress, even prominent Republicans like Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, have no patience for this argument, and have already pronounced the surge a failure. Lugar constructively proposes some achievable course corrections that would recast our priorities in Iraq, and would focus on a “sustainable” policy, rather than the binary proposition of the pundits, we stay or we go.
A second sobering summer topic is reflecting on what would happen if the US were to leave. The media and the political class are trying to gauge the relative costs of staying versus leaving, by imagining the affect on violence inside Iraq and possibly beyond.
Civil War Some believe there would be whole-scale civil war, with a daily death toll of Iraqis much higher than its already unbearable levels. Iraqis believe that the remaining Sunni community, probably well under 20% of the total population, would try to flee the country. The Kurds might also retreat to their northern autonomous area, and make plans for full independence.
Al-Qaida in Iraq: Winner or Loser? It is not clear if Al-Qaida would suffer from an American departure; surely its raison d’etre, to attack the US forces, would need revision, and Iraqis might be more confident in turning against any foreign groups operating on Iraqi soil. But al-Qaida has made inroads into Iraqi society, and in the chaos of civil war, may be able to hang on as one more violent actor in a failed state.
Regional Spillover In the absence of occupation forces, the neighbors would likely be both victimized, through refugee flows, drops in tourism and investment, and other woes, and would become predators, trying to influence if not control portions of the Iraqi population and territory to which they have cultural affinity and access. Iraq in this scenario could break up or lose its sovereignty in more subtle ways.
Iranian victory A humiliating departure of American forces would surely be seen as a political triumph for Iran and some of its Iraqi allies and protégés. But it would likely be a pyrrhic victory, with untold costs and anxieties for the difficult and defiant regime in Tehran.
These possible repercussions are disturbing and would constitute a grave setback for American prestige and influence in the region, and even for America’s self-respect. But they are only inputs to a painful decision that must take into account other American interests. America’s anguish over Iraq will endure longer than the summer heat.