Infighting: To Leave or Not to Leave?
Ezra Klein of The American Prospect and Adam B. Kushner of The New Republic debate withdrawal from Iraq.
Infighting, Ezra Klein and Adam B. Kushner, Nov. 15-18, 2005
Ezra Klein of The American Prospect and Adam B. Kushner of The New Republic debate withdrawal from Iraq.
November 15-18, 2005
In the interests of fostering a lively discussion on the issues we sometimes don’t agree on, Campus Progress is beginning a series of online debates called “Infighting.” The purpose is to hash out what the progressive position on a contentious issue should be, morally and strategically. Never ones to underestimate our own ability, we modestly chose to begin with the elephant in the room that can sometimes threaten to tear the progressive coalition apart—doves against hawks, realists against idealists, humanitarian interventionists against anti-imperialists: Should we withdraw from Iraq?
The debate proposition was: Progressives should advocate for withdrawal from Iraq, beginning with an immediate drawdown of our forces there.
Pro: Tuesday and Thursday, Ezra Klein, UCLA ’05, Writing Fellow at The American Prospect, and frequent campusprogress.org contributor.
Con: Wednesday and Friday, Adam B. Kushner, Columbia ’03, Assistant Managing Editor at The New Republic.
Adam B. Kushner – Friday, November 18
I’ll make this short. Anthony Zinni is, of course, right about the manifold ways in which the Iraq war was a shitstorm of incompetence, negligence, and mendacity. We don’t need experts to tell us that, or even that the military is overstretched. Yes, this is bad – especially for the unexpected conflicts yet to come. (Though I think fair-minded liberals can agree that there’s not some enormous, new, and completely unforeseeable philosophical foreign policy project lurking around the corner the way there was before September 11; still, this is an epistemological question, not a liberal one, so it is neither here nor there.)
But these still don’t address the terms of our debate – or the argument that eschews withdrawal – so let’s have the prompt again: “Should progressives advocate withdrawal from Iraq?” The answer is no, because leaving Iraq means abandoning the progressive cause for this war. It means, essentially, giving up the fight for liberal democracy just because we won’t get it in the platonic form. Well, you have to make compromises: A Muslim theocracy that still allows women to vote is better than a Muslim theocracy that doesn’t; a violence-ravaged country with American soldiers to hunt terrorist cells is better than a violence-ravaged country left to endure terrorism alone. (Ezra, the CIA, and the State Department are correct that jihadists are “networking, gaining urban combat experience, and becoming ever more radicalized and dangerous.” But neither he nor they have shown any evidence whatsoever that things wouldn’t be even worse in our absence—a problem Ezra doesn’t even deal with.) Incidentally, Iraqi’s do not “want us to vacate their premises,” as they have asked us repeatedly to stay.
This is not “hope,” so much as it is right. Once you destroy a country, its infrastructure, its government, and its social order, there’s a small matter of moral obligation that we can’t dismiss as an insurmountable inconvenience. We have a duty—even at the cost of American lives—not to surrender Iraqis to the maximalist Sunni id. That is progressive.
Finally, if Ezra doesn’t see “what our continued presence is achieving,” he’s not reading the newspapers. I’d say a constitution is a pretty great achievement, and, without our prodding and protection, its authors would never have gotten this far short of a civil war. “Withdrawal from Iraq is progressive because nothing else makes sense,” Ezra writes. This is nonsense. If Iraq becomes 1990s-era Afghanistan, this very progressive war will have been for nothing.
Thanks for having me on board for this, Ezra and CP!
Ezra Klein – Thursday, November 17
To begin, I’m not sure which force-deployment specialists Adam is reading. When Anthony Zinni, former commander-in-chief of the Central Command, and thus commander of all our forces in the Middle East, decided to write a book, he justified the decision thusly: "False rationales presented as justification, a flawed strategy, lack of planning, the unnecessary distraction from real threats, and the unbearable strain dumped on our overstretched military, all of these caused me to speak out."
Expert enough for you? The point of having an army ready for multiple wars is not that we expect to attack China come sunrise, it’s that we don’t. In early September of 2001, no one expected we’d be rolling through Afghanistan before the year was out, and I certainly heard no force-deployment specialists predicting a twofer with Iraq. If, as Adam seems willing to grant, we’re currently too overstretched to deal with an unexpected conflict in Iran/North Korea/Venezuela/Syria/Taiwan, the fact that the horizon seems momentarily clear isn’t a good reason to ignore it.
As for the Iraq-Afghanistan comparison, Adam’s missing the point. The issue isn’t whether Iraqis have a grudging sense of gratitude (and that’s questionable too: a recent poll by the British Defense Ministry found 82% of Iraqis "strongly oppose" the presence of foreign troops and 45% approve of attacks on them), it’s whether jihadist groups from across the continent are networking, gaining urban combat experience, and becoming ever more radicalized and dangerous. The answer to that is an unqualified yes, and that’s not just my answer, it’s the CIA and State Department’s opinion. A more radicalized, more dangerous jihadist movement is not, I’d think, a progressive outcome.
As for the rest of Adam’s points, so far as I can tell, the plan is hope, but, as we’ve heard before, hope is not a plan. He says that "the faster we leave, the faster the progressive cause in Iraq will come to naught," but that’s meaningless unless he explains what our continued presence is achieving – and comparisons, like the one he made, to the days of Saddam Hussein are not satisfactory. Hussein’s gone now; the question is whether we should follow suit.
Does Adam think the country’s become stronger or the jihadists weaker in the past 12 months? He admits that a democratic Iraq is an almost certain theocracy, but somehow doesn’t let that obscure dreams of a progressive future. Others don’t. Indeed, our presence is hurting the country’s progressive prospects. Adam’s colleague Spencer Ackerman, the primary Iraq reporter at The New Republic, has gone from staunch hawk to prominent withdrawal advocate. He makes the case well: " The prospects for outright civil war and for jihadist propaganda victory, however, are significant. But they’re far more likely if the United States stays than if we leave."
Withdrawal from Iraq is progressive because nothing else makes sense, and progressive policies should make sense. The Iraqis overwhelmingly want us to vacate their premises and our continued presence has shown no ability to halt attacks or weaken the jihadists. What, exactly, are we waiting for? We should help them train their troops, but that doesn’t require a full-scale occupation.
If progressives want Americans to trust them to govern, they can’t rely on unfounded idealism to justify the continuation of a disastrous occupation. It’s time to go.
Adam B. Kushner – Wednesday, November 16
Ezra and CP, thanks for having me onboard for this knockdown drag-out. Good times. Ezra is absolutely right that the answer to both questions – whether progressives should advocate withdrawal and whether the United States actually should withdraw – is the same. But he has it backwards: The answer to both, reader, is no.
Let me deal first with Ezra’s most technical points. Our military is, indeed, overstretched. But that does not make it “progressive” to leave Iraq. Until an overstretched force actually threatens our national security, this is a weakness we can bear (and you can bet we’d be hearing much more from force-deployment specialists if they feared another conventional war anywhere or anytime soon). Besides, the corollary to this complaint – that the Powell doctrine is the only justified military strategy – would bind our hands so tightly as to prevent us from fighting more than one conflict anytime, anywhere. And there are too many unstable or hostile (or both) regimes in this world to play by those rules.
Ezra would also have us believe that Iraq today is like Soviet-era Afghanistan, but this is an extremely misleading analogy. Unlike Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Iraqis express grudging appreciation for the ouster of Saddam Hussein, even if they don’t like the ensuing chaos. We’re obviously not there on an imperialist quest; and we remain there at their behest. Has Iraq attracted terrorists, and have some civilians harbored them? Absolutely. But it’s not a broadly popular insurgency like the anti-Soviet one was, and Ezra offers not a shred of evidence to show how Iraq without the U.S. military would be any less dangerous to America (and it’s impossible to prove that our presence feeds the insurgency any more than it represses it). In fact, without the uber-competent antiterrorist missions we run there, it would almost certainly be more so. Finally, yes, the deficit is important. But let’s not be shortsighted. On the hierarchy of progressive causes, it really ought to fall far below sectarian comity, rule of law, and human rights.
Now for some actual progressive points: First, popularity is not, nor has it ever been, a mark of rightness. If progressives are in the business of capitulating to the majority, we can forget about gay marriage, for example. What’s more, the poll-driven argument is totally contradictory: If the people are always right, then we were right to go to war in the first place, something many progressives don’t agree with. Second, it is complete farce to say it’s “unclear what we’re accomplishing now” immediately before pointing out that “elections have been held.” Just imagine – 30 months ago, Iraqis couldn’t vote, speak their minds, or do anything else we take for granted. It was a republic of fear, as Kanan Makiya called it. Progress in reinventing Iraq is plodding (and it has come at a great cost). But it is progress; do not ever forget that.
Of course, Ezra deploys many hard truths about Iraq: Democracy there does approach theocracy. Moreover, the country constantly verges on civil war. But I don’t see how that vindicates a speedy exit. On the contrary, the faster we leave, the faster the progressive cause in Iraq will come to naught. White House expressions of “disappointment” won’t do much to instigate a sectarian ceasefire, and without the leverage of Iraqi reliance on our military, we really won’t be able to knead, pressure, and cajole Iraq’s constitutional framers to construct the most liberal state possible. We’ve turned a country upside down, and now we’ve got to make it right. Progressives can’t sit this one out.
Ezra Klein – Tuesday, November 15
I first want to thank CP for hosting this debate, and Adam Kushner for participating in it – or maybe not, as I’d have appreciated an easier opponent. With that said, let’s get to it.
The question is “should progressives advocate withdrawal from Iraq?” As formulated, it seems a political issue: not should America withdraw, but should progressives talk about withdrawing. Good thing, then, that the answer to both questions is the same, and I don’t need to feel like a poll-driven hack in this argument.
But so long as we’re framing a political case here, we’ve picked a helluva week to do it. The death toll, on 10/26, ticked past 2000 American soldiers (not to mention tens or hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians) dead. For the first time, polling shows that a majority (not just a plurality) of Americans think invading was the “wrong” thing to do. Fifty-nine percent think we should “leave ASAP” rather than “staying as long as it takes.” Interestingly, Americans no longer even believe Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11. Back when the war started, his participation was assumed by 51%; now that number has plummeted to 33%. Add in that there are no Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), the place is a slaughterhouse, and democracy is looking a whole lot like theocracy, and you see every single rationale for the war has been shredded before the eyes of the American people. They want to leave. We should help them.
But withdrawal is not only the politically smart thing to do, it’s the right thing to do. And that, for a progressive movement to be worthy of its name, must matter. Our military is massively overstretched, wholly unable to effectively deploy should another part of the world pose a threat. Our budget is busted, not solely by Iraq, but it didn’t help. And more to the point, we’re not making the situation there better, we’re in fact making it worse.
So long as American boots rest on Muslim lands, we are a target for jihadists from all over the region—jihadists who wouldn’t be interested if not for our presence. And we’re not just attracting them, we’re training them. In June, The New York Times detailed a CIA report arguing that Iraq had become a terrorist laboratory, a place where the region’s extremist groups gathered, fought, networked, practiced urban combat, and tested their skills against a much-larger and more powerful aggressor. This is, incidentally, exactly what happened in Afghanistan in the ‘80s. Then the enemy was the Soviet Union, but the region-wide mobilization of jihadists is where al-Qaeda emerged, where bin Laden’s myth was created, where the modern jihad movement was born. And now, in Iraq, we’re doing it again. And this won’t just be a problem for us; the urban guerrilla tactics Iraq is teaching can be turned on any government in the region, creating powerful, systematic instability.
Beyond that, it’s simply unclear what we’re accomplishing now. Elections have been held. A constitution has been ratified. A government is in place. And poll after poll, survey after survey, study after study shows that Iraqis want Americans out. It’s very admirable that we’ve decided what’s best for them and judged their country too unstable to abandon, but it does not appear that our continued presence is calming the situation. Indeed, our occupation appears to be doing just the opposite. That’s because entering Iraq was a mistake. But withdrawing from it won’t be. Indeed, it’s the only path that makes any sense.