Stay or go in Iraq?


Today, former White House policy aide Rivkin and Katulis, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, debate troop withdrawal. Yesterday, they discussed the large drop in civilian and military deaths in Iraq. Later this week, they’ll talk about the political surge, the apparent decline in Sunni Islamist appeal in Iraq and other issues.

Don’t wait for Iraqi leaders to change
By Brian Katulis

By now, it is clear that President Bush’s surge strategy has failed to meet its fundamental objective: that Iraq’s leaders will make compromises to advance the country’s deadlocked political transition. Iraq’s leaders remain stuck in the Green Zone debating some of the same issues they debated in 2004 and 2005. While the United States maintains its open-ended troop presence in Iraq, Iraq’s leaders have little incentive to make the power-sharing agreements necessary to stabilize the country.

The Bush administration’s strategy fosters a dangerous culture of dependency among a number of Iraq’s leaders, propping up a dysfunctional and corrupt Iraqi national government without fundamentally altering the strategic calculations of Iraq’s leadership to lead to a peaceful resolution of Iraq’s struggle for power.


David, your notion that the United States has become an “indispensable power” in Iraq reveals the dangerous folly that lies at the heart of conservatives’ thinking about Iraq these days — that simply “sticking it out” and “keeping our nerve” will magically resolve these struggles for power.

There are two main problems with this line of thinking. First, it ignores the fact that top leaders of competing Iraqi factions — including Prime Minister Nouri Maliki — have shown almost no signs that they are serious about moving toward resolving the power-sharing disputes. Until Iraq’s leaders demonstrate more seriousness of purpose on steps such as integrating more Sunnis into Iraq’s army and police, the current Bush administration Iraq policy may simply be arming up different sides of Iraq’s civil wars — all with the potential blowback of making Iraq’s internal conflicts even more deadly in the coming years. The sad truth is that in central Iraq, competing Iraqi factions are exploiting our most precious national security resources — our young men and women in uniform — as pawns in their internal struggles for power

The second problem with the notion that the United States simply must stay because it is an “indispensable power” is that it ignores the fact that U.S. troops are largely irrelevant when it comes to key parts of the country. In the strategically important southern part of Iraq — where the majority of the country’s oil and gas reserves are located and which is the center of gravity for Iraq’s Shiite-majority population — the U.S. troop presence is negligible, and competing Iraqi factions are reshaping the landscape without the United States. Similarly, in northern Iraq, along key Arab-Kurdish fault lines such as Kirkuk, no good military options exist for the United States to resolve those escalating tensions.

Iraq cannot stabilize without serious action from Iraq’s leadership, and it is self-defeating for the United States to want Iraq to succeed more than the Iraqi leadership does. U.S. troops in Iraq have served with honor and done their share. And the time has long passed for Iraq’s leadership to step up and take responsibility for its own affairs. Instead of passively waiting for Iraq’s leaders to make a series of power-sharing decisions they have shown themselves unwilling to undertake, the United States should take a more active stance and begin redeploying its troops out of Iraq’s internal conflicts. Until it does so, Iraqis will have little incentives to go out on patrol and take greater responsibility for their neighborhoods, and Iraqi leaders will have no incentive to settle their power-sharing disputes.

Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for the American Progress, is the coauthor of the forthcoming book, “The Prosperity Agenda.”

No unrealistic timetables
By David B. Rivkin Jr.

The objective of the surge strategy has been to foster stability and the emergence of a stable, prosperous and pro-American body politic in Iraq. Yet it is vastly premature to say that the surge has failed. As I noted yesterday, all indications are dramatically to the contrary. Casualties are down, and Al Qaeda in Iraq’s organization has been shattered.


Like most critics of the war, Brian, you demand success within an artificial and unrealistic time frame. Wars, particularly counterinsurgency wars, which are fought in small engagements and patrols rather than set-piece battles, take time to win. If the unrealistic time frames the critics impose on the war in Iraq had been insisted upon in any of America’s past wars, most of which included periods of terrible setbacks, the results would have been disastrous. We would never have persisted through a score of defeats to win our independence, the Union would have collapsed after the first few Confederate victories, and Europe would groan under the racist rule of the National Socialists. By any measure, the United States’ performance in the Iraq war has already been vastly more successful than its efforts in any of these conflicts. Al Qaeda has won no crushing battle against us. It has been steadily defeated. Nevertheless, war takes time.

Critics manifest enormous disdain for Iraq’s leaders in accusing them of being unwilling or unable to reach long-term power-sharing agreements. A little humility and compassion would be useful here. The United States needed well over a century — and a bloody civil war — to work out its most basic social divisions. Many would argue that those divisions are still imperfectly healed. As is not the case in the United States, the penalty for a poor decision by an Iraqi leader is not retirement to plot a return to politics. It is likely death for him and his whole family, and possibly genocide for his ethnic group. The stakes are enormous, and Iraqi politicians are accordingly cautious. Rather than serving as a disincentive to compromise, only the steady, reassuring presence of the U.S. armed forces will allow the Iraqis to reach an eventual inter-ethnic compromise. Without American forces maintaining the balance, concessions by any of the country’s armed ethnic groups would simply be too risky.

To emphasize, American troops are not in Iraq to enable or facilitate a civil war. Our only interest in these struggles is that they give way to the kind of peaceful, stable government that offers terrorists no opportunity. What is happening in Iraq today is a key part of our post-9/11 effort to engage Al Qaeda and similar jihadist forces. Our mission is not only to defeat Al Qaeda but to demonstrate to all the world that Al Qaeda’s key strategic assumption — that the United States is, in Osama bin Laden’s words “a weak horse” — is a lie. Only sustained and determined military effort can make clear that this is not the time to reestablish a global caliphate.

Finally, I find it ironic that you criticize the U.S. presence in the south of Iraq as largely irrelevant. As with most critics, you hope to reduce and ultimately withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq. The lower concentration of forces in the south of Iraq and in Kurdistan is a sign of success. The United States is now able to exercise strategic leadership throughout the country, both by virtue of our success in the “Sunni triangle” and in Baghdad, but also because we are cooperating in new ways with key allies in the south. We do not need to put boots on the ground everywhere.

David B. Rivkin Jr. is a partner in the Washington office of Baker Hostetler LLP. He served in a variety of legal and policy positions in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, including stints in the White House, at the Justice Department and at the Energy Department.

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